If you’re about to read this article, chances are you have or have had a tight IT band (or think you might) at some point during your training. You may be experiencing knee pain, poor mobility, inability to get into a deep squat or even just tightness throughout the quad and hamstring (been there, done that, talk about annoying!). No matter the reason you’re here, learn more about tight IT band causes, symptoms, and how to fix it. We’ll also dig into how to avoid IT band syndrome once and for all.
What Is The IT Band?
The iliotibial band (IT band for short) is a long piece of connective tissue that starts at the hip and runs all the way down the femur connecting past the knee and into the shinbone. It’s also referred to as Maissait’s band or the iliotibial tract. When we don’t workout much, the IT band is thin, and as we workout more, performing repetitive movements and strength training, the IT band gets thicker, supporting all the other muscles in the upper leg like the quadriceps, hamstrings, and adductors.
IT Band Function
For the average person, the IT band helps muscles to contract and to stabilize the hips as they sit over the femurs. We use the IT band at all ages and stages of our life, whether we’re crawling, walking, or running. As we put our bodies under tension or use them in movement, our IT bands, which are a connective tissue, begin to remodel and strengthen themselves in order to support the increased demand. This was first expressed by an orthopedic surgeon, Henry Davis, in the early 19th century.
Tight IT Band
As you endure repetitive movements, like lifting, bending, squatting, running, jumping, climbing, and more, you begin to put more mechanical load on the hips and legs, including the IT band. While our tendons, ligaments, and muscles are meant to be relatively rigid, they aren’t necessarily meant to be so tight that they can’t move. If our bodies have too much tightness, they’re unable to have give, which can cause problems, leading to pain and injury.
The IT band itself is designed to support the body in the way of lateral stabilization of the knee. Since the IT band is connected to the Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL) and the Glute Medius, tightness in these muscles is often the reason why we blame the IT band for being tight. When muscles are tight, this means that they’ve lost a bit of their elasticity, which begin to pull on other things like tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissue.
So when someone says that they have IT band tightness, they’re often referring to the pain in the outer knee or quad that is a result of a tight glute or TFL, causing an anterior pull on the Iliotibial band. Other causes can be from overuse, overtraining, not stretching, foam rolling, warming up, or a muscular imbalance. That being said, if you have a tight IT band and you ignore it, it can develop into IT Band Syndrome.
IT Band Syndrome
Anyone can develop IT band syndrome, but those who partake in activities like CrossFit, Olympic lifters, runners (especially distance runners), cyclers, and people who sit are among the most likely to develop it. When the IT band becomes debilitatingly tight swelling, pain, and even some fluid build up can happen. If the swelling and irritation persists and isn’t addressed, then you may need to seek help from things like dry needling, physical therapy, massage therapy, medications, or surgery (surgery is really rare though).
Causes Of Tight IT Band and IT Band Syndrome
When the IT band is being pulled one direction or another, there is often an excessive amount of friction in which can result in developing Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS). When this happens, there is a friction and irritation when moving the knee from the connective tissue rubbing against the bone. While there isn’t a one size fits all for the reason why people develop IT band syndrome, there are a variety of reasons that can contribute to tightness in the muscles associated with the connective tissue as well as common causes.
Tight IT Band Causes:
- Excessive foot pronation
- Hip abductor weakness
- Internal tibial torsion
- Not stretching before/after workout out
- Overuse/overtraining and lack of rest
- Running long distances or downhill
- Worn out shoes
IT Band Syndrome Symptoms
IT band knee pain is one of the most common symptoms of a tight IT band as well as developing IT band syndrome. Usually the pain is located right outside the knee or right above the knee itself. As you warm up or get moving, maybe even doing some dynamic stretching, the pain might go away. If it doesn’t though, and the pain gets worse as you exercise or continue to train, you might experience other IT band syndrome symptoms such as:
- Pain on the outer side of the leg
- Pain above the knee or on the outside of the knee
- Feeling clicking, popping, grinding or snapping on the outside of the knee
- Unusual warmth of the knee
- Aching, burning, or tenderness around the knee or up the side of the leg.
How To Treat IT Band Syndrome
Rest and recovery are the most important parts of healing the IT band, followed by stretching and releasing the connective muscles around the IT Band. You may want to take an over the counter pain or inflammation reliever like ibuprofen or turmeric. It’s also recommended that you reduce the activities or avoid the activities that cause you pain.
You may want to apply ice or heat compress and take Epsom salt baths to relieve the pain and inflammation in the connective tissue. If the issue persists, you may want to consult a massage therapist, physical therapist, or chiropractor to help you address the issue or try other methods of recovery. Another thing you will want to do is take a look at your programming or talk to you coach about the possibilities of overtraining and adjusting your programming to take it a little easier on your body.
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Tight IT Band: In Conclusion
A tight IT band can be bad news for your body and your training. While the IT band itself doesn't get tight, the muscles that it is connected to can, causing knee pain, inflammation, and swelling. If this IT band tightness or tension goes on for too long, without relieving the tightness in the muscles surrounding it, you may develop IT band syndrome which can take up to 6 weeks to heal with a combination of rest and recovery. Your best bet to avoid this condition? Stretch regularly, warm up before and cool down after exercising, and don't over train or over-stress the body.
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