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Iliotibial band syndrome

Last revised by David Luong on 03 Jul 2021

Iliotibial band (friction) syndrome is a common cause of lateral knee pain related to intense physical activity resulting in chronic inflammation. Alternatively, the same pathology can occur over the greater trochanter and is considered the same diagnosis.

Commonly affects young patients who are physically active, most often long-distance runners or cyclists. The exact prevalence is unknown, but one study has found the prevalence among actively training marines to be higher than 20% 5.  Iliotibial band syndrome accounts for 12% of running-related overuse injuries 4.

Classically, iliotibial band syndrome is diagnosed by history and physical examination. Pain over the greater trochanter or at the lateral knee joint is the presenting symptom with point tenderness 1-2 cm above the lateral joint line. Pain is usually worse with downhill running and increases throughout an episode of activity 4.

When the knee flexes, the iliotibial band (ITB) moves posteriorly over the lateral femoral epicondyle. When the band is excessively tight or stressed, the ITB rubs against the epicondyle irritating the lateral synovial recess. 

With hip flexion, the ITB slides anteriorly over the greater trochanter and may cause a painful clunking sensation or audible snap.

The following physical factors are reported to be associated with the development of the syndrome 4:

  • limb length discrepancy
  • genu varum
  • overpronation
  • hip adductor weakness
  • myofascial restriction

The histologic analysis demonstrates inflammation and hyperplasia in the synovium. 

Allows visualization of the impingement by assessing dynamic motion of the ITB through knee flexion and extension.

MRI is reserved for when the diagnosis is unclear and to exclude other etiologies of lateral knee pain such as a meniscal tear or lateral collateral ligament injury.

MR findings of ITB syndrome include ill-defined signal abnormality within the fatty soft tissues interposed between the ITB and bone. In the knee, the soft tissues lateral to the lateral femoral condyle show low T1 and high on T2 signal, in keeping with edema/fluid. In the hip, similar soft tissue changes are present and there may also be tendinopathy or tear of the gluteus medius or minimus tendons. There may also be marrow edema in the affected bone.

Cystic areas representing primary or secondary (adventitious) bursae may be identified.

Chronic MR findings include thickening of the ITB and increased T2 signal intensity superficial to the ITB are occasionally seen. Soft tissue fibrosis and bony proliferation may be present.

Initial treatment is conservative, consisting of physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication, and steroid injections 3.

Surgical treatment is reserved only for those who fail conservative treatment and includes resection of the posterior aspect of the ITB 3.

General imaging differential considerations include:

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