little known “muscle” series: IT band

This is a guest post from my cherished Hailey Paton, Physical Therapist Extraordinaire! (Her business card really says that! True story.)

I know you have heard people say, “maybe your IT Band is tight.” You nod your head in agreement and wonder what the heck he/she is talking about. You wonder if there truly is a band in your leg? Is it a muscle, tendon or ligament? What does “IT” mean anyway?  Well, let me set the facts straight!

The Iliotibial band (ITB), also referred to as the Iliotibial tract, is actually a fibrous band of fascia or connective tissue. The fascia acts as a reinforcement or protective layer to the muscles of the lateral leg. It is one of the thickest pieces of tissue in the body. In layman’s terms, the ITB connects at the top of the pelvis on the side and runs down the leg to insert just below the knee on the outside. At the insertion site, the band moves back and forth as we straighten and bend the knee. So you can visualize that when the band gets tighter the friction and rubbing at the knee will be more intense. The rubbing irritates the band and causes inflammation and pain at the knee. This pain is diagnosed as ITB syndrome. The causes of ITB syndrome include:

  • Overuse of the knee on hard surfaces or uneven terrain
  • Tightness of the ITB and surrounding hip musculature (ie. tensor fascia latae, gluteus maximus)
  • Leg length differences
  • Pronation of the foot
  • Knocked knees

You can grasp the importance of stretching and maintaining the flexibility of the ITB and surrounding musculature of the hip. The best two stretches I have found are seen here. In the first exercise you lay on your back with a band or towel wrapped around the foot and pull the leg straight up. Then, slightly cross the leg over your midline keeping it straight. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat three times.

The second stretch is performed in the standing position. Cross the tight leg behind the other and bend forward from the waist. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds and repeat 3 times on each side.

Susan here again: I always pay attention to the IT band during massage sessions. It’s tighter than it should be for many of us. And massage strokes aimed at loosening the IT band can help increase flexibility. I am always reminded my IT bands are tight when my son jumps on them when we’re wrestling. He always thinks it’s funny what a big reaction he can get from mom. Kids are helpful in so many ways, right?