Knee pain: Signs, symptoms and treatment options

Knee pain is an all-too-common ailment that affects people of all ages and walks of life. Whether it’s a nagging ache that won’t go away, a sharp pang that strikes without warning, or a debilitating throb that makes it hard to stand or walk, knee pain can significantly impact our daily lives.

This article aims to thoroughly explain knee pain, exploring the core aspects of this complex condition. We will look into the basic anatomy of the knee, shedding light on its intricate design and how it functions. 

Furthermore, we will discuss the various causes and risk factors leading to knee pain, hoping to give you the tools to understand better and manage your condition.

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What is knee pain?

Knee pain is a common condition characterized by discomfort in or around the knee joint. It is not a disease but a symptom that can arise from various underlying causes. 

It can present itself in many forms, from a mild ache that causes slight inconvenience to severe, debilitating pain that restricts mobility and hampers the quality of life. 

The pain can be localized to a specific knee area or diffused throughout the knee joint, depending on the cause. It may come on suddenly as a sharp, acute pain or a chronic, dull ache that persists over a long period. 

The severity and duration can also vary widely, from temporary discomfort due to a minor injury to long-lasting pain due to chronic conditions or diseases.

How common is knee pain? 

Knee pain is a common problem worldwide, affecting individuals of all ages [1]. A rough estimation suggests that nearly a quarter of grown-ups face a certain extent of discomfort in their knees. This makes it one of the most frequently reported issues in primary care and orthopedic clinics.

Furthermore, the incidence of knee pain has been shown to increase with age, with older adults being particularly affected. However, it is not exclusive to any age group and can affect individuals at any stage of life, including children and adolescents.

The knee is a complex hinge joint that connects the thigh bone (femur) to the shinbone (tibia). Its intricate design is crucial to many daily activities, including walking, running, jumping, and sitting. Understanding the knee’s anatomy can provide valuable insight into the nature of knee pain.

How common is knee pain? 

How the knee works

The knee joint’s primary functions are to support the body’s weight and provide essential mobility. The knee allows for three types of movement: bending (flexion), straightening (extension), and a small amount of rotation [2].

Its unique structure and the interaction between its components enable it to handle immense pressure while maintaining flexibility. This combination is essential for performing day-to-day activities and participating in physical activities or sports. 

Any damage or injury to these components can lead to pain, instability, and decreased function of the knee, emphasizing the importance of understanding the anatomy of this vital joint.

What are the causes of knee pain?

Knee pain can result from various causes ranging from acute injuries to chronic conditions, age-related factors, and less commonly known causes [3].

Acute injuries

These are often from a sudden impact or twisting motion, common in sports or accidents. They can lead to sprains (ligament injuries), strains (muscle or tendon injuries), fractures, or meniscal tears.

Chronic conditions

Conditions like osteoarthritis (wear and tear arthritis), rheumatoid arthritis (inflammatory arthritis), and patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee) can cause persistent pain.

Age-related factors

With age, the cartilage in the knee gradually wears away, leading to conditions like osteoarthritis. Additionally, the tendons and ligaments become less flexible and more prone to injury.

Lesser-known causes

Conditions not directly related to the knee can also lead to knee pain. These include:

  • Hip or foot problems: Issues in the hip or foot can affect the way you walk, putting more stress on knee joints and leading to pain.
  • Nerve compression: Conditions like sciatica can cause nerve pain in the knees.
  • Infections: Certain infections, including septic arthritis (infected joint) and osteomyelitis (bone infection) can cause this condition.

Risk factors for knee pain

Several factors can increase the likelihood of experiencing this condition:


The risk increases with age because of the normal wear and tear of the knee joints and the prevalence of diseases like osteoarthritis [4].


Obesity or being overweight increases stress on the knee joints, even during ordinary activities like walking or going up and down stairs [5].

Physical activity

Certain activities or sports are more likely to result in knee pain due to the high impact on the knee joint. These include football, skiing, basketball, and running.

Previous injury

Having a previous knee injury makes it more likely to have another [6].

Occupational risk factors

Jobs involving a lot of kneeling, squatting, or lifting heavy weights can cause knee pain.

What are the signs and symptoms of knee pain?

Symptoms vary widely depending on underlying causes, ranging from a minor annoyance to severe, debilitating pain.

1. Pain-related symptoms

  • Sharp or sudden pain: This can often indicate an acute injury like a torn ligament or meniscal tear.
  • Dull, aching pain: This is more commonly associated with chronic conditions like osteoarthritis or tendinitis.
  • Pain during or after movement: Pain that worsens with activity or improves with rest often suggests a mechanical issue in the knee, like a torn meniscus or knee osteoarthritis.
  • Pain even at rest or night: Pain that doesn’t improve with rest may be due to inflammation from conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or infection.

2. Visible physical changes

  • Swelling: This is a common symptom of knee injuries or inflammatory conditions like arthritis. It can also occur if there’s a build-up of fluid around the knee joint (effusion).
  • Redness and warmth: Redness and warmth around the knee joint are typically signs of inflammation or infection.
  • Deformity: In some cases, the knee may appear deformed or out of alignment, indicating a severe injury or advanced arthritis.

3. Limited movement

  • Stiffness: Stiffness in the knee can be a common symptom of arthritis and can often worsen in the morning or after periods of inactivity.
  • Instability or feeling of giving way: If the knee feels unstable or like it might give way, it could be a sign of a ligament injury or progressive arthritis.
  • Decreased range of motion: Difficulty bending or straightening the knee fully can indicate various problems, including injury to the cartilage or ligaments or a build-up of fluid in the knee.
  • Popping or crunching noises: You can hear these sounds when moving the knees and can indicate a mechanical issue within the knee, like a meniscal tear.

When should you seek medical assistance?

While occasional knee pain after intense physical activity can be expected, persistent or severe pain warrants medical attention. 

Emergency situations

Seek immediate medical attention if any of the following accompanies your knee pain:

  • Intense pain: If the pain is unbearable or suddenly becomes severe, it’s crucial to seek medical help immediately [7]. This pain might indicate a serious injury, like a broken bone or a torn ligament.
  • Sudden swelling: Rapid swelling in the knee could indicate a serious injury or a medical condition like septic arthritis, which requires immediate treatment.
  • Visible deformity: If your knee looks visibly deformed or out of alignment, it might suggest a severe injury like a bone fracture or dislocation.
  • Fever or signs of infection: If you have pain with fever, chills, or other signs of infection like redness, warmth, and extreme tenderness around the knee, it’s critical to seek immediate medical help. This could be a sign of an infected joint needing urgent treatment.

Non-emergency situations

If you notice any of the following, consult your doctor:

  • Persistent pain: If your pain lasts over a few days or doesn’t improve with self-care measures like rest, ice, and over-the-counter pain relievers, it’s time to see a healthcare provider.
  • Limited mobility: Difficulty walking, bending, or straightening the knee due to pain or stiffness can interfere with your daily activities and should be evaluated by a healthcare provider.
  • Chronic pain: If you have recurring pain or it is slowly worsening over time, it’s important to get it evaluated to prevent further damage.

How is knee pain diagnosed?

Diagnosing starts with a comprehensive medical evaluation. Healthcare providers use various methods to determine the underlying cause of the pain. Accurate diagnosis is vital to create an effective treatment plan.

1. Medical history

The healthcare provider will begin by asking about your symptoms, their duration, and any activities or incidents that may have triggered the pain. They will also ask about previous knee injuries or surgeries, physical activity levels, occupational hazards, and overall health history.

2. Physical examination

A hands-on examination of your knee will be conducted to assess swelling, warmth, redness, tenderness, range of motion, stability, and pain during specific movements [8]. The doctor may also examine your hip, foot, and other leg, as problems in these areas can contribute to the pain.

3. Imaging tests

To get a detailed view of the knee joint and its structures, your healthcare provider may recommend one or more of the following imaging tests:

  • X-ray: This is often the first imaging test used. X-rays can reveal bone fractures, joint space narrowing (a sign of arthritis), and sometimes, loose pieces of bone or cartilage.
  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): An MRI provides detailed images of hard and soft tissues, including ligaments, tendons, and cartilage [9]. It is particularly useful for detecting soft tissue injuries like ligament tears and meniscal injuries.
  • CT Scan (Computed Tomography): A CT scan combines X-ray images from different angles to create cross-sectional knee images. It’s beneficial in detecting bone problems and complex fractures.
  • Ultrasound: An ultrasound uses sound waves to create real-time images of the knee joint. It can help detect fluid accumulation, cysts, and soft tissue injuries.
imaging tests
Photograph: Zinkevych_D/Envato

4. Lab tests

Sometimes, your healthcare provider may order lab tests to help diagnose the cause of your pain. These could include:

  • Blood tests: Blood tests can help identify signs of infection or inflammation in the body, which could be causing the pain.
  • Joint fluid analysis: In this test, a small amount of fluid is drawn from the knee joint with a needle (a procedure called arthrocentesis). The fluid is then examined for signs of infection, gout, or other diseases.

The findings from these tests, combined with your medical history and physical exam, will help your healthcare provider pinpoint the cause and devise an appropriate treatment plan.

What treatment options are available for knee pain?

The treatment depends on the underlying cause, severity of symptoms, and your overall health. Treatment aims to reduce pain and inflammation, restore normal knee function, and prevent further injury or damage. Here are the primary treatment alternatives:

Self-care measures

  • Rest and activity modification: Resting the affected knee and avoiding activities aggravating the pain can promote healing. As the knee improves, gradually reintroduce activities under the guidance of your healthcare provider or a physical therapist.
  • Ice and heat therapy: Applying ice to the knee can reduce inflammation and relieve pain, especially after an acute injury. Heat therapy, like a warm bath or heat pack, can help alleviate stiffness associated with chronic conditions.
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers: Non-prescription medicines like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve) can help relieve mild to moderate pain.
  • Assistive devices: Using crutches, canes, or knee braces can provide support and reduce stress on the knee.

Physical therapy

Physical therapy is a cornerstone of knee pain treatment. A physical therapist can teach you exercises to strengthen the muscles around the knee, improve flexibility, and restore range of motion. They may also use techniques like massage, heat or cold therapy, ultrasound, or electrical nerve stimulation.


Prescription medications might be needed for more severe pain or certain conditions:

  • Corticosteroids: These potent anti-inflammatory drugs can be injected into the knee joint to relieve severe arthritis or injury-related inflammation temporarily.
  • Hyaluronic acid injections: Also known as viscosupplementation, these injections can help lubricate the knee joint, reducing pain and improving mobility in some people with osteoarthritis.
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): These are used to treat inflammatory types of arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis. They suppress the body’s immune response, reducing inflammation and joint damage.


Surgery is typically considered when other treatments have failed, and the pain significantly affects your quality of life. Options include:

  • Arthroscopy: A minimally invasive procedure where the surgeon inserts a small camera (arthroscope) into your knee to repair or remove damaged tissues [10].
  • Joint replacement surgery: In severe cases, especially with advanced arthritis, the damaged parts of the knee joint may need to be replaced with artificial parts.
  • Osteotomy: This procedure involves reshaping the bones to relieve pressure on the knee joint.

Remember, the best treatment for knee pain varies from person to person. Discuss these alternatives with your healthcare provider to create a tailored treatment plan that suits your needs.

What knee pain supplement can you take?

Dietary supplements are often used as a complementary approach to manage knee pain, particularly in conditions like osteoarthritis. 

However, it’s important to remember that supplements do not replace traditional treatment and their efficacy can vary between individuals. Always consult your healthcare provider before starting any new supplement regimen.

1. Glucosamine and chondroitin

These are the most commonly used dietary supplements for knee pain due to osteoarthritis [11]. They are natural components of healthy cartilage, and it’s thought that taking them as a supplement might help repair damaged cartilage.

2. Omega-3 fatty acids

Found in fish oil and flaxseeds, omega-3 fatty acids have potent anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce joint inflammation and relieve pain.

3. Curcumin or turmeric

Curcumin, the active component in turmeric, has potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties [12]. Some studies suggest it may help reduce pain and improve function in people with osteoarthritis.

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4. Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency is linked to increased pain in some people with knee osteoarthritis. Supplementing with vitamin D might help if you have a deficiency.

5. Other supplements

Several other supplements like MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), SAMe (S-adenosyl-L-methionine), and ginger have also been researched for their potential benefits in managing knee pain.

What exercises can you do with knee pain?

Physical activity is a crucial part of managing knee pain. Regular exercise can strengthen the muscles around your knee, improve flexibility, and reduce pain. Here are some exercises that can be beneficial:

Leg lifts

Lie on your back with one leg bent and the other straight. Lift your straight leg about a foot off the ground, hold it briefly, and lower it back down. Repeat several times before switching legs.

Wall squats

Stand with your back against a wall and your feet shoulder-width apart. Slowly slide down the wall until your knees are bent at a 45-degree angle, then hold for 5 to 10 seconds before sliding back up.

Hamstring curls

Stand and hold onto a chair for balance. Lift one foot off the ground, bending your knee to move your heel towards your buttock. Lower the foot back down slowly. Repeat several times before switching legs.

Calf stretches

Stand facing a wall with one foot in front of the other. Keeping your back leg straight, lean forward until you feel a stretch in the calf of your back leg. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds before switching legs.

Calf stretches
Photograph: nunezimage/Envato

Seated knee marches

While seated, lift one knee towards your chest as far as possible while keeping your foot on the floor. Lower it back down and repeat with the other knee.

Strategies to prevent knee pain

Prevention is mainly about maintaining the health and strength of your knees. This involves proper care of your overall health, regular exercise, and some lifestyle changes. Here are some strategies to help you prevent knee pain:

1. Maintain a healthy weight

Excess body weight puts additional strain on your knee joints, increasing the risk of knee pain and osteoarthritis. Maintaining a healthy weight through balanced nutrition and regular physical activity can help alleviate this stress.

2. Engage in regular exercise

Regular physical activity helps strengthen the muscles supporting your knees, reducing the risk of injury. Ensure you include strength training and flexibility exercises in your routine for balanced muscle development. It’s also essential to warm up before exercising and cool down afterward to protect your knee joints.

3. Use proper techniques in physical activities

Whether you’re exercising, playing sports, or doing any physical activity, using the proper technique is vital to avoid unnecessary strain on your knees. This might involve learning how to lift heavy objects, proper running form, or how to perform exercises and sports movements.

4. Wear protective gear

If you play sports that increase the risk of knee injury (like soccer, basketball, or skiing), use knee guards or other protective gear. Also, invest in good-quality shoes that provide adequate support and cushioning for your activity level and type.

5. Don’t ignore the pain

If you feel pain during an activity, stop and rest. Pushing through pain can lead to serious injury. If you have recurring knee pain, seek professional help. It’s far easier to address knee pain in its early stages than to treat chronic or severe conditions.

Closing thoughts

Knee pain, while common, should never be ignored. It’s a signal from your body that something may be wrong.

Numerous treatment alternatives exist to manage knee pain, from self-care measures and physical therapy to medications and surgery. Incorporating supplements and exercises can further enhance these treatments. 

Remember, it’s crucial to consult with healthcare providers when knee pain arises to prevent further complications and ensure optimal knee health.


How do I know if my knee pain is serious?

You should consider your knee pain as serious if it is severe, doesn’t improve with rest, or is accompanied by swelling, redness, inability to move the knee, visible deformity, or if a traumatic injury causes the pain. Any of these conditions warrant immediate medical attention to prevent further complications.

What can cause knee pain without injury?

Knee pain without an injury can often be caused by various medical conditions like arthritis, gout, infections, or diseases that cause changes in the bone structure like osteoporosis. Additionally, overuse due to repetitive movements, improper knee alignment, or excess weight can lead to knee pain without a specific injury.

What is the best painkiller for knee pain?

Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve) can effectively relieve mild to moderate knee pain. However, for chronic or severe knee pain, it’s best to consult a healthcare provider who can prescribe more vital medication or propose other treatment options, depending on the underlying cause.

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Photograph: svitlanah/Envato
The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.