Treating IT Band Syndrome with acupuncture and massage

By Marcie Bower, Lic.Ac.

This post is copied from our older, original blog. Original post date 12/16/2014.

The IT Band (Iliotibial Band) is a dense line of connective tissue that runs down the lateral side of your legs from the hip to the knee. Many of the large muscles on the front and back of the leg attach into the IT Band. When there is inflammation of the IT Band, or if it is working too hard to compensate for other muscles’ weakness, something called IT Band Syndrome occurs. This is an incredibly common injury in runners, rowers, hikers, and certain swimmers. It can be caused by over-doing any activity that activates the IT Band or causes the leg to turn slightly inward, thereby causing a pull on the outer part of the leg (such as running on a banked track or sitting cross-legged.) It can also be caused by an imbalance in the stabilizing muscles of the hip, buttock, and low back. If one of these large muscles isn’t firing properly, smaller muscles connecting to the IT Band pick up the slack and work over-time. (See an excellent discussion of this phenomenon here.) Lastly, IT Band Syndrome can sometimes be caused by anatomical or body dynamics issues, such as high arches, uneven legs, or over supination or pronation of the foot while walking or running (landing too much on the inside or outside arch of the foot.)

IT Band Syndrome presents as pain on the outside of the knee, pain along the outside of the leg, or pain at the top of the femur (where the outside of the leg joins with the outside of the hip.) This pain is often worse following exercise such as running or hiking, and can be quite sharp during the exercise itself. The most common recommendation to treat IT Band Syndrome is to stop whatever activity is causing it, take anti-inflammatories to help with the inflammation of the tissue, stretch, and strengthen the hip and knee stabilizer muscles. The only problem with this is that most athletes don’t want to take up to 8 weeks off from their sport to nurse their sore IT Bands, and many individuals don’t want to or can’t take the quantities of anti-inflammatory medications to sustain feeling better.

Both acupuncture and massage can be useful treatment options for IT Band Syndrome, and can help quicken the healing process. They can stand-alone or be combined with treatments such as chiropractic and PT, to address any underlying muscle imbalance or anatomical cause.

Massage for IT Band Syndrome

Because so many different muscles of the hip and upper leg attach into the IT Band, tightness in any of these muscles can cause a pull on the IT Band that in turn causes pain. Even if you are experiencing pain in your knee, the issue may be coming from tight muscles in your hip or upper leg. A well-trained massage therapist knows how all these muscles fit together and can learn the patterns that your body is exhibiting based on where you are experiencing the pain, and how your tissues feel. Sports massage focusing on the lower body can help to loosen up sore muscles, thereby relieving some of the undo pressure put on the IT Band, which ultimately speeds healing and decreases pain.

Acupuncture for IT Band Syndrome

Acupuncture works on IT Band Syndrome on a number of levels. It increases blood flow to the local tissues, thereby quickening the body’s ability to heal. It, like massage, also can release or loosen sore and tight muscles surrounding the IT Band, and can penetrate into a deeper layer of muscle and connective tissue to get that release.  It also stimulates the body’s own abilities to heal. From a traditional acupuncture perspective, pain and stiffness occur when energy in the body is stuck and not flowing properly. This can be caused by injury, overuse, or stress. The IT Band perfectly mirrors an acupuncture channel called the Gall Bladder channel. By needing points along the Gall Bladder channel, from the buttock area all the way down to the foot, an acupuncturist can open up the energy flow in the channel and thereby release the blockages causing the pain. Interestingly enough, the Gall Bladder channel also runs along the tops of the shoulders – another frequent place that individuals with IT Band Syndrome experience tension or pain. Depending on the cause of the IT Band pain from an acupuncture perspective, the acupuncturist will also include other points to rectify the underlying imbalance in the body – this could be a tendency to stress and tension, an underlying energy or tissue weakness, or the tissues not being properly nurtured from within. Other points on the legs, arms, ears, or back can address these underlying root causes of the imbalance in the leg and hip.

So if you are experiencing IT Band Syndrome, have no fear! Give us a call, we are confident that we can help.