Popliteus Muscle Injury

Popliteus muscle

A Popliteus muscle injury is a strain or tear of a small muscle located at the back of the knee. A Popliteus strain causes pain in the back of the knee and can occur suddenly, or develop gradually over time from overuse.


Medically reviewed by Dr Chaminda Goonetilleke, 13th Dec. 2021

Popliteus injury symptoms

Popliteus injuries are either sudden onset (acute) or gradual onset overuse injuries (chronic). Acute injuiries result from sudden twisting of the knee, a fall or collision. Often, patients with a Popliteus injury also have tight hamstring muscles. Specifically, symptoms include:

  • Pain at the back of the knee joint.
  • Tenderness when pressing in at the back of the knee.
  • Pain on resisted knee flexion (bending) with the foot rotated outwards.
  • If you have a severe injury then simply straightening your knee fully might be difficult.


A professional practitioner will fully assess your injury and refer you for an MRI if they think it is needed. An MRI scan gives a more detailed image of any damage to the popliteus muscle.


What is a Popliteus injury?

The Popliteus muscle is responsible for the internal rotation of your shin bone. It is also the muscle you use when you unlock (begin to bend) your knee from a straight position.

Injuries are either sudden onset (acute) or occur gradually through overuse (chronic injuries):

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Acute popliteus injuries

Acute popliteus injuries tend to occur after you have suffered a significant force to your knee. These are more common in road traffic accidents or falls where your knee becomes overextended (over-straightened). Also, impacts that force your knee out sideways can also tear the Popliteus muscle.

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Popliteus injuries may also occur in association with other injuries. For example, a torn posterior cruciate ligament, or occasionally ACL ruptures, as well as being part of the posterolateral corner injury involving a number of other structures in the knee.

Overuse injuries

Overuse injuries to the popliteus muscle develop gradually. You will not be able to pinpoint the exact time your injury occurred. These are more common in runners and tend to be related to biomechanical issues. Tight hamstring muscles are also often partly to blame.

Treatment of popliteus injuries


Rest from aggravating activities. Complete rest may not be necessary but avoiding anything that causes pain or makes the injury worse should be avoided.

Cold therapy

Apply ice or cold therapy immediately as soon as possible after injury. You can initially apply ice or a cold pack for 10 minutes every hour for the first 24 to 48. This is the acute stage.

Do not apply ice directly to your skin as it may cause ice burns. Wrap in a wet tea towel first, or better still use a commercially available hot & cold wrap. As your symptoms improve you can reduce the number of times per day you apply cold therapy.

Knee supports

Wear a lightweight knee support to protect your injured muscle in the early stages. Later, a heat retainer-type support will encourage blood flow and aid healing.

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Deep tissue sports massage to the Popliteus muscle along with ultrasound therapy may be beneficial.


A doctor may prescribe NSAIDs or anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen if necessary and for persistent or severe cases a corticosteroid injection may be used if the above treatment fails.

Exercises for Popliteus muscle injury

Once the acute stage has passed you can begin gentle hamstring stretching exercises. These should be done several times a day, as long as pain allows. Hold stretches for up to 20 seconds at a time and repeat 3 times.

Later, a full rehabilitation program to strengthen both your quadriceps and hamstring muscles should be completed.

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