Medically reviewed by Dr. Chaminda Goonetilleke, 13th Dec. 2021
A Popliteus muscle injury is a strain or tear of the small Popliteus muscle located at the back of your knee. Injury to the muscle causes pain at the back of the knee.
Popliteus injury symptoms
Injuries can be sudden onset (acute) or gradual onset (chronic) overuse injuries. Popliteus muscle injury symptoms can occur gradually through overuse or may result from a sudden twisting, fall or collision and include:
- Pain at the back of your knee joint.
- Your knee will feel tender when pressing in at the back.
- It is likely to be painful when trying to bend your knee against resistance, whilst your tibia (shin bone) is rotated outwards.
- If you have a severe injury then simply straightening your knee fully might be difficult.
- Often, if you have a Popliteus injury then it is also likely you will have tight hamstrings.
A professional practitioner will fully assess your injury and refer you for an MRI if they think it is needed.
What is a Popliteus injury?
The Popliteus muscle is responsible for 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):
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 over extended (over straightened). Also, impacts which force your knee out sideways can also tear the Popliteus muscle.
Popliteus injuries may also occur in associated 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 to the popliteus muscle develop gradually. You will not be able to pinpoint the exact time your injury occured. 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.
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.
Wear a light weight knee support to protect your injured muscle in the early stages. Later, a heat retainer type support will encourage blood flow and aid healing.
Deep tissue sports massage to the Popliteus muscle along with ultrasound therapy may be beneficial.
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.