Essential Guide to Understanding Knee Pain

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Feeling the ache of stiff or swollen knee joints? You’re not alone. According to a survey from the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), knee pain is the second most reported cause of chronic pain with roughly one out of three Americans saying they experience knee pain regularly.

Is knee pain simply the result of natural wear and tear that comes with aging? Not at all. There are a handful of preventable risk factors and causes to keep in mind:

Common Causes of Knee Pain

A whole host of injuries, conditions, and diseases can lead to acute and chronic knee pain including:


Bursitis: Bursa, or fluid-filled sacs in and around the knee joint, are designed to help limit friction of the knee and make for more fluid joint movement. Overtime, bursitis of the knee can lead to inflammation of the bursa sacs, swelling and discomfort.

Osteoarthritis: Arthritis sufferers may experience a localized degeneration and degradation of the knee joint over time which leads to stiffness, inflammation, and pain.

Gout: A person with gout may experience an “attack” when their body over-produces uric acid which builds up crystals around the joint of their knee causing painful stiffness and inflammation.

Tendinitis: An injury to the patellar tendon connecting the kneecap to the shin can make it hard to jump and walk up and down inclines. Overtime the muscle can weaken and become less flexible.

Rheumatoid Arthritis: Another form of arthritis, this autoimmune condition leads to acute pain and inflammation of the knee joint with potential degradation and deformity of the bone joint.

Ligament Tear: Bands of tissue inside your knee that help connect lower leg and thigh bones include the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) or the medial collateral ligament (MCL). A traumatic injury common in athletes, ligament tears sometimes require surgery and can cause pain, limited range of motion, and swelling.

Meniscus Tear: When the cushioning cartilage in your knee joint called the menisci tears it can result in swelling, tenderness, a locking or catching of the knee joint, and limited range of motion.

Fracture: The kneecap and other bones in and around the knee can incur breaks and fractures from sudden impact, like a vehicular crash. Sometimes instead of a break, your kneecap can actually shift out of place and become dislocated.

IT Band Syndrome: When the iliotibial band of tissue that runs down the thigh from your hip to the outside of your knee becomes tight and inflamed from overuse, it can rub against the side of the femur and cause leg and knee pain.

Knee pain may also be derived from a tumor developing in the bone of the knee or a cyst growing out the back of the knee.

Common Risk Factors for Knee Pain

A large amount of knee injury, pain, and discomfort is somewhat preventable as the weaker the connective tissues around your knee are, the more likely they are to tear, strain, or be unable to stabilize the joint correctly. Risk factors include:

Being overweight: Carrying around extra weight or being obese amplifies the amount of internal stress placed on your knee joints, putting you at higher risk for degeneration and breakdown of vital cartilage and connective tissues.

Playing sports: Overuse and high-impact motions, like with distance running, skiing, and playing basketball, all impact the knee joint greatly, potentially accelerating the wear and tear and increasing risk of injury.

Poor flexibility and strength: The knee joint absorbs a lot of the shock from simply walking, running, standing up, and jumping. Tight and stiff muscles and tendons that lack strength and pliability put your knee at great risk of injury. A previous injury to the knee may also increase your chances of reinjury.

Poor technique/form: Whether walking, running, or participating in physical activity, if your form or technique is off, it can up your chances of feeling knee pain big time. Improper pronation in the feet, poor posture, and even hip imbalance can lead to unnecessary strain on leg and knee muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

Bad footwear: Old, worn out running shoes and even high heels can alter your gait and form so significantly that it leads to knee pain and even injury.

When Should You See a Doctor?

Seek medical treatment for your knee pain right away if you experience:

  • Swelling and tenderness of the knee cap

  • Inability to flex or extend your leg at the knee joint

  • Trouble bearing weight on one or both of your knees

  • Notice a growth or other deformity on or around the knee

  • Sudden popping or crunching noises when moving or using your knee

  • A locking or catching of the knee joint when walking or standing

  • Severe weakness of the knee joint, feel your knee “giving out”

With quick attention and early diagnosis, much knee pain can be treated with invasive procedures or even pharmacological aids. Don’t let knee pain get the better of you!