Pain Behind the Knee: What It Could Mean

Medically Reviewed By Daniel Wiznia, MD
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Pain behind the knee is a common issue that can affect people of all ages. It may result from a physical injury, such as a torn ligament or cartilage. However, arthritis, infections, gout, and other conditions can also cause this type of pain.

What is pain behind the knee?

Young woman with pain behind knee stretching and pulling knee up to face
Sergey Filimonov/Stocksy United

Pain behind the knee is discomfort or soreness behind the knee joint. It may occur with or without movement, and it can be severe enough to limit movement. People may describe pain behind the knee as discomfort, inflammation, increased warmth or burning, soreness, stiffness, or pain.

This kind of pain is a common symptom of a Baker’s cyst, which is a buildup of synovial fluid behind the knee. Synovial fluid lubricates the joints and reduces friction between the joint cartilages. The symptoms associated with a Baker’s cyst tend to come and go, and the condition should not cause any long-term damage to the knee.

Popliteal vein thrombosis has similar symptoms to a Baker’s cyst, but it is a more serious condition. Popliteal vein thrombosis occurs when blood clots restrict or block blood vessels behind the knee.

If your knee pain symptoms persist or cause you concern, contact a medical professional.

If you experience pain behind the knee and calf with painful swelling and bruises, seek immediate emergency medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with pain behind the knee?

Pain behind the knee often occurs alongside other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder, or condition. These symptoms include swelling (edema), inflammation, redness, soreness, or pain.

If you are experiencing other symptoms along with your pain behind the knee, be sure to tell your healthcare professional. Having this additional information can help them make a diagnosis.

Symptoms that may occur along with pain behind the knee

Pain behind the knee may occur with other symptoms, including:

  • an inability to put any weight on the knee
  • pain when stretching your leg
  • reduced knee mobility
  • stiffness
  • swelling

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life threatening condition

In some cases, pain behind the knee may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life threatening condition that requires immediate evaluation in an emergency setting.

Symptoms that may indicate a serious or life threatening condition include:

  • bruising on the back of the knee or calf
  • difficulty breathing
  • redness or other discoloration behind the knee of one leg
  • warmth behind the knee of one leg
  • painful swelling on the back of the knee or calf

What causes knee pain?

Pain behind the knee can be due to a fairly mild condition, such as a torn hamstring that responds well to rest and self-care measures. However, it can also result from a Baker’s cyst. With this condition, you may have pain, swelling, and bruising behind the knee and calf.

Chronic degenerative conditions that cause knee pain include osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritisRheumatoid arthritis is also an autoimmune condition.

Common causes of Baker’s cysts and pain behind the knee

Pain behind the knee may arise from an injury or inflammatory condition, such as:

What are the potential complications of pain behind the knee?

Because pain behind the knee could indicate a serious condition, not seeking treatment can result in complications. It is important to visit your healthcare professional when you experience any kind of persistent pain, redness, warmth, or other unusual symptoms.

Once your doctor has diagnosed the underlying cause, it is important that you follow the treatment plan they outline to reduce your risk of potential complications related to pain behind the knee, including:

  • a loss of mobility
  • disability
  • poor quality of life from constant pain

What are some ways to treat pain behind the knee?

The treatment plan to address your knee pain will depend on the cause of your pain and the diagnosis you receive.

Medication

Your physician may prescribe medications such as oral or topical pain relievers to address the pain you may be experiencing. This may be the case for gout- or rheumatoid arthritis-related pain, for example. Some of these treatments are even available over the counter.

Therapy

Your doctor may recommend or refer you for physical therapy, depending on the extent of your knee pain or injury. The exercises and stretches approved by a physical therapist can help strengthen the muscles surrounding your knee and gradually improve your symptoms.

Injections

In some cases, your doctor may decide to inject medications directly into your knee to address your pain. Injectable treatments are often used when osteoarthritis is causing knee pain. These injections may include:

  • Corticosteroids: Injecting corticosteroids into your knee joint can help minimize knee pain in the instance of an arthritis flare-up. The relief provided from this may last up to a few months.
  • Platelet-rich plasma (PRP): PRP contains various amounts and types of growth factors that have been known to reduce inflammation and promote healing.
  • Hyaluronic acid: Similar to the fluid that lubricates joints naturally, hyaluronic acid can be injected into your knee to ease pain and improve mobility. The relief provided from one injection or a series of injections can last up to 6 months.

Surgery

In the event of a severe knee injury or after attempting nonsurgical remedies without success, your doctor may advise that surgery is necessary to address the problems causing your knee pain. Procedures include:

  • Partial knee replacement surgery: For this procedure, your surgeon will replace only the most damaged part of your knee with metal or plastic parts. This surgery is usually performed with small incisions, so healing can be quicker than with total knee replacement.
  • Total knee replacement: For this procedure, your surgeon will cut away the damaged cartilage and some bone from your kneecap, thighbone, and shinbone. They will then replace this with an artificial joint made of high grade plastics, metal alloys, and polymers.
  • Arthroscopic surgery: This is a less invasive procedure wherein your doctor may be able to examine and repair your knee damage using a fiber-optic camera, narrow tools, and small incisions. Arthroscopy may be useful for removing loose bodies from your knee joint, removing or repairing damaged cartilage, and reconstructing torn ligaments.
  • Osteotomy: This procedure involves removing bone from the affected shinbone or thighbone to improve the alignment of your knee and relieve arthritis pain. This type of surgery can be helpful in delaying or preventing the need for total knee replacement surgery.

Home remedies

Home remedies may prove useful in treating mild cases of pain behind the knee. These can include:

  • The R.I.C.E. method: “R.I.C.E.” stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. This technique is a common remedy for addressing mild injuries from strains and sprains.
  • Weight management: Maintaining a moderate weight can help minimize added pressure to your joints. Extra weight can be harder on your joints.
  • Heat and cold: A warm heating pad may provide pain relief when paired with rest. Cold treatments can reduce any inflammation associated with your pain or injury.
  • Herbal ointments: A 2011 study identified ginger, cinnamon, sesame oil, and mastic-based ointments as equally effective as other topical pain relievers used for arthritis.

When to contact your doctor

Contact your physician promptly if you experience any of the following:

  • severe swelling and pain
  • severe bruising or deformity
  • symptoms that affect other parts of your body
  • symptoms that persist for longer than a few days or that gradually become worse
  • other health conditions that could delay or complicate your healing
  • symptoms of an infection, such as a high grade fever

Summary

Knee pain is a common occurrence that can affect people of all ages. The cause of knee pain can be an underlying condition or an injury.

The best treatment for your knee pain will depend on your diagnosis and the severity of your injury. Contact your doctor to determine the safest course of action to address your knee pain.

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Medical Reviewer: Daniel Wiznia, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 18
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