Knee Pain: Everything You Need to Know

Medically Reviewed By Daniel Wiznia, MD
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Knee pain can affect various parts of the knee. The knee is the joint where the kneecap, the thigh bone, and the bones of the lower leg meet. Your knees also consist of skin, muscles, tendons, cartilage, ligaments, nerves, and blood vessels. All parts of the knee are subject to injury, degeneration, atrophy, and infection. Knee pain affects approximately 1 in 4 adults in the United States. Healthy knees ensure stability and flexibility of the leg and enable movement of the lower leg.

Read on to learn more about the types, causes, diagnostic tests, and treatments related to knee pain.

What are the types of knee pain?

A person gets a knee massage
David Prado/Stocksy United

There are three general types of knee pain: acute, chronic, and overuse.

Acute

Acute knee injuries occur because of a sudden injury. Common acute knee injuries can include:

  • ligament damage, especially to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament
  • tears in the meniscus, which is the shock absorbing cartilage of the knee
  • muscle sprains or strains
  • knee dislocation
  • bone fractures
  • cartilage damage
  • damage to the nerves and arteries
  • damage to the lymphatic system, which consists of lymph nodes, vessels, and bone marrow

Chronic

Chronic conditions can cause ongoing pain in or around the knee. These conditions can include:

Overuse

Overuse injuries occur when the knee is stressed repeatedly or over long periods. Common overuse injuries can include:

  • patellofemoral pain syndrome, which is a repetitive stress injury commonly known as runner’s knee
  • tendinitis, wherein the tendons in your knee become inflamed or irritated
  • bursitis, which occurs when fluid filled sacs in your knee called bursae become inflamed or irritated

What are the causes of knee pain?

The causes of knee pain can include:

  • trauma or injury
  • overuse
  • age-related wear and tear
  • infections
  • nerve damage, such as sciatica
  • chronic conditions, such as arthritis

What other symptoms might occur with knee pain?

Knee pain can develop alongside other symptoms, depending on the underlying cause. These symptoms may include:

  • bleeding or bruising
  • a burning or prickling feeling
  • a change in your gait, such as limping
  • an inability to flex or straighten the knee
  • muscle spasms
  • flushing, swelling, or warmth in the joint
  • thigh, lower leg, ankle, or hip pain
  • tingling or pain in the toes

How do doctors diagnose knee pain?

To diagnose your condition, your doctor will examine your medical history. They will also perform a physical exam, focusing on your knee and leg. The exam will check for signs of injury and may involve moving your knee in different directions to see how far it will go.

After the exam, your doctor may recommend imaging tests to look for structural damage. These tests can include:

If your doctor suspects an autoimmune condition or an infection, blood tests may be necessary.

What are the treatments for knee pain?

Knee pain treatment will depend on the cause and severity of the pain. The treatment goals are to relieve the pain and correct any underlying problems.

Medical treatments

Doctors may recommend a brace to support the knee or crutches to keep weight off the knee.

Physical therapy is a common method of treating knee pain. It can help strengthen supporting muscles and restore knee function. Some injuries, such as fractures or ACL tears, may require surgery to fully restore knee function.

People who have arthritis may benefit from viscosupplementation injections. For this treatment, doctors inject hyaluronic acid into your joint, which helps reduce pain and swelling.

Home remedies

A common method for treating minor knee pain at home is the RICE technique. This involves:

  • Rest: Try to limit any activities that require using your knee, and try not to put any weight on it.
  • Ice: Applying an ice pack wrapped in a towel to your knee for 20-minute intervals can relieve pain and inflammation. Repeat this four to eight times per day.
  • Compression: Gently wrap your knee with an elastic bandage, ensuring that it is not too tight.  
  • Elevation: You can help reduce swelling by elevating your knee.

In addition, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) can help relieve knee pain. Diclofenac gel, which is an NSAID gel, may also help relieve joint pain.

What is the outlook for people with knee pain?

Minor knee pain often resolves with at-home treatments, including icing or elevating the knee, taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as NSAIDs, and resting the knee. Physical therapy and surgery can effectively resolve severe knee injuries and pain, though healing times may be longer.

Knee pain that results from a chronic condition may require consistent treatment over long periods of time.

What are the risk factors for knee pain?

Risk factors for developing knee pain include:

  • advanced age
  • overweight or obesity
  • misaligned joints
  • tight or weak leg muscles
  • work that requires regular bending at the knee, squatting, or kneeling
  • participation in sports such as basketball or skiing
  • previous knee injuries
  • a history of arthritis
  • a work or home environment with lots of stairs

When should you contact a doctor for knee pain?

Although mild knee pain often gets better with at-home treatments, you may need to talk with your doctor if it persists for longer than a few days.

There are circumstances where you should seek immediate medical care for knee pain, including when:

  • There is obvious knee or leg deformity.
  • You cannot bear weight on the affected leg or bend the knee.
  • You have severe knee pain, bruising, or swelling.
  • You have pain and swelling that do not resolve after a few days.

FAQ

Here are a few commonly asked questions about knee pain. These answers have been medically reviewed by Dr. Daniel Wiznia.

How can you relieve knee pain at night?

Taking a warm bath or placing an ice pack or heating pad on your knee for 10 minutes can help prevent knee pain at night. Be sure to not place any ice packs or heating pads directly on your skin, as this could cause frostbite or burns.

Elevating your knee with a pillow or placing a pillow between your knees and sleeping on your side could also help. OTC medications such as NSAIDs should be used as directed.

What causes knee pain when standing?

Runner’s knee, osteoarthritis, and meniscus tears can cause knee pain when standing.

What causes pain in my knee when bending?

Many conditions can cause knee pain when bending the joint, including osteoarthritis, bursitis, and an injury.

If the front of your knee hurts when bending, you could have runner’s knee. If the side or back of your knee hurts, you may have a meniscus tear or a Baker’s cyst. A Baker’s cyst is a fluid filled cyst that forms behind the knee.

Summary

Knee pain is a very common condition, affecting roughly 25% of U.S. adults. Common causes of knee pain include tears in the knee ligaments, fractures, arthritis, and runner’s knee.

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask you about your medical history to diagnose knee pain. They may also recommend imaging tests such as X-rays or MRI scans to look for structural damage.

You can often treat minor knee pain with at-home remedies, such as icing the knee, keeping it elevated, or taking NSAIDs. Some cases may require medical treatment, which may involve physical therapy or even surgery.

Talk with your doctor if you are experiencing knee pain.

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Medical Reviewer: Daniel Wiznia, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 May 20
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