There are a huge number of causes of knee pain. Sometimes pain comes on after an injury, other times pain in the knee gradually builds up over time with no obvious cause.
To get rid of the pain permanently, it is vital to correctly identify the "cause" (what made it go wrong in the first place), not just the "symptom" (what we feel) otherwise it's likely the problem will come back.
Let me give you an example. Say your knee is swollen and painful, you could treat that with PRICE, medication and some gentle exercises. The swelling and pain might settle temporarily (i.e. the symptoms go away), but what caused it in the first place is still there in the background. Treatment will certainly help, but as soon as you go back to doing your normal activities, your knee will most likely start hurting again and may swell. However, if you treat the weakness and tightness, you treat the “causes” of knee pain, and hey presto, problem solved.
Accurate diagnosis can be difficult so below I’ve listed off the major causes of knee pain with a brief outline of the most distinctive symptoms – click on the links to find out more about each problem. For a different approach to diagnosis, see the diagnosing knee pain section for a more in depth guide.
NB I’ve split injuries, caused by one off events such as a fall or sports activity, into a separate section - see the knee injuries section for more information including treatment and recovery information.
This is one of the most common causes of knee pain around the front of the knee. Don’t be fooled by the name. It is just as likely to affect those with sedentary lifestyles as it is active people. There are a number of causes including kneecap movement problems, flat feet and muscle imbalance. The most common symptoms are pain over the kneecap, swelling and pain on stairs. It usually settles within a few months.
Learn more about Runners Knee
This is one of the most common causes of knee pain in sporty adolescents and young adults, especially females. It is caused by damage to the cartilage that lines the back of the knee cap. It results in pain at the front of the knee, especially when going down stairs, or after sitting for long periods, and can cause the knee to make funny noises when it moves.
Learn more about Chondromalacia Patella
This is the most common cause of knee pain in teenagers, especially males. It usually develops after a growth spurt due to the bones growing faster than the muscles, causing friction. This can lead to a bony lump forming just below the patella. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to 2 years to settle.
Learn more about
This is the most common cause of knee pain in people over the age of 50. It is caused by wear and tear to the cartilage that lines the joint, leading to bone on bone contact. It can cause pain, swelling, weakness, limited movement and difficulty with everyday activities such as walking and going up and down stairs. There are 3 stages of arthritis. Treatment varies according to the severity of the disease, ranging from exercises to surgery.
Learn more about Arthritis
This is caused by inflammation of a bursa - small fluid filled sacs that lie between bones and muscles/tendons to prevent irritation. There are approximately 15 bursa around the knee. Excessive friction from activities such as jumping, running or muscle tightness can lead to swelling of one or more bursa which leads to pain. The location of the pain will depend on which bursa is affected. The symptoms tend to be general pain and swelling around the knee.
Learn more about Bursitis
This is the most common cause of posterior knee pain, and is due to inflammation of the popliteal bursa which sits behind the knee joint. It is usually caused by fluid associated with arthritis or a cartilage tear leaking into the bursa and causing it to swell, but it can occur after any damage to the knee. The symptoms tend to be pain and swelling behind the knee, like a soft orange which can limit knee movement.
Learn more about Bakers Cyst
Again, don’t be fooled by the name. Nowadays, it is usually tradesmen
such as roofers and carpet layers who spend long periods kneeling who
suffer from this. Excessive kneeling, or less commonly, a knock to the
front of the knee causes swelling in the prepatellar bursa. The most
common symptoms are pain at the front of the knee, swelling (again like a
soft orange) and difficulty walking, bending the knee and kneeling.
Learn more about Housemaids Knee
This common cause of knee pain usually affects sports players who do
lots of jumping and/or kicking. These activities place lots of strain
on the patellar tendon (found just below the kneecap) and can lead to
small tears in the tendon. This weakens the tendon and makes it prone
to further damage. The most common symptoms include pain just below the
kneecap, especially after prolonged periods of rest and/or activity as
well as knee stiffness first thing in the morning.
Learn more about Patellar Tendonitis
This is the most common cause of knee pain on the outer (lateral) side
of the joint, and is often seen in runners. The iliotibial band runs
down the outer side of the thigh attaching at the knee. Excessive
friction on the band, caused by things such as muscle imbalance,
excessive running, or running on a slope result in inflammation and
Learn more about Iliotibial Band Syndrome
This is one of the less common causes of knee pain. A reduced blood supply to parts of the bone cause loose fragments of cartilage and bone to break off. Whilst it can occur in any joint, it is the knee that is the most commonly affected. As well as pain, it can cause locking and clunking sensations in the knee, limited movement and swelling.
Learn more about Osteochondritis Dissecans
To find out more about these common causes of knee pain, including how to treat each one, go back and click the links above.
These are the most common causes of knee pain that comes on gradually without an injury. If your pain started due to a one-off injury such as a fall or sporting accident, check out the Common Injuries section for more information on things such as ligament injuries and cartilage tears.
Alternatively, visit the Diagnose Your Pain section for help working out what is causing your pain.
If you are looking for more general treatment ideas for your pain, visit the knee treatment section for advice on strengthening exercises, stretches, different types of surgery, and PRICE (protect, rest, ice, compression, elevation) for different causes of knee pain.
Remember, you should always consult a health professional who is trained in diagnosing causes of knee pain, such a doctor or physical therapist with any new onset of pain.
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