Osgood-Schlatter Is a Pain in The… Knee!

By Baird Johnson,

Anastasia Hanifin, a high school student and ballet dancer in NYC, first noticed the knee pain when she was 12.  For her, the pain was in both knees but much worse in the left knee.  When a tween or teen athlete mentions to their parents that a leg or knee hurts, parents often chalk it up to “growing pains.”  As it turns out, parents are pretty smart.  Young athletes going through puberty and participating in running and jumping sports — or sports that require quick changes in direction like soccer, football, basketball; even figure skating and ballet — might soon hear the words Osgood-Schlatter.

“Osgood-Schlatter is one of the most frequent complaints I see in young athletes,” said Dr. Charles Popkin of Columbia Doctors. Dr. Popkin, who has dedicated his career to treating sports-related injuries among pediatric, adolescent, and collegiate athletes, describes Osgood-Schlatter as “an overuse injury to the knee from repetitive micro trauma to the knee at the insertion of the patellar tendon into the tibial tubercle apophysis.”

In laymen’s terms, Osgood-Schlatter is an injury (named after doctors Osgood and Schlatter) that often occurs during a growth spurt.  It typically affects boys ages 13 to 14 and girls ages 11 to 12.  During growth spurts children are particularly vulnerable because their bones, muscles, and tendons are growing rapidly and not always at the same time. While running and jumping, a child’s thigh muscles (quadriceps) pull on the tendon that connects the kneecap to the shinbone.  This can cause the tendon to pull away from the shinbone a bit and place unusual stress on the growth plate at the top of the shinbone.

Hanifin’s doctor made the diagnosis of OS after ordering X rays and doing a physical exam.  She went to physical therapy twice a week, and while she said, “It was painful,” she feels it definitely helped.  She added, “Another thing that helped me manage the pain were some specific exercises from PT that I could do by myself at home.”  A physical therapist can show young athletes how to stretch quadricep and hamstring muscles, which may help reduce the tension on the spot where the kneecap’s tendon attaches to the shinbone.

Mark Mendes, a longtime coach who currently coaches the boys cross country team and the distance runners for indoor and outdoor track at Stuyvesant High School stated, “Often young athletes can run through Osgood-Schlatter but you should let pain be your guide.” He added, “if it hurts, you need to back off on your training.”  Dr. Popkin agrees, “Kids with Osgood-Schlatter don’t have to give up sports entirely, but they may have to limit their activities for a few weeks or months until the pain improves.”

For parents, deciding when to take their child to the doctor is always tough.  Competitive athletes often have minor aches and pains.  “I see the full spectrum [of timing], some [parents] jump the gun too quick and some wait way too long,” Dr. Popkin notes.  But, if the pain interferes with a child’s ability to perform routine daily activities, if the knee is swollen and red or in rare cases if the knee pain is associated with fever, locking or instability of the knee joint, a visit to the doctor is definitely in order.

The good news is symptoms typically disappear after a child’s bones stop growing and Osgood-Schlatter can get better without formal treatment.  Until then, there are some basic measures a child can do at home: rest, ice, and crosstrain. Children might also try using a patellar tendon strap which fits around the leg just below the kneecap. It can help to distribute some of the force away from the shinbone.  It’s tough to get “benched,” but erring on the side of caution when dealing with injury will make athletes better off when they get “back in the game.”

Baird Johnson is a member of our team of junior Journalists. He is a 9th grader at Stuyvesant High School in Lower Manhattan. 

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