Why Does My Knee Hurt?

Most common causes are injury and wear and tear

An athlete has knee pain after running a long distance.

Most common causes are injury and wear and tear

Every year millions of Americans seek treatment for knee pain. It is one of the most common reasons for medical visits. Knee pain can result from a sports injury, or an accident, simple wear and tear or a medical condition.

Treatment for knee pain largely depends on the type of injury or disorder. Sudden injuries, long-term overuse or underlying conditions, such as arthritis, are the most common causes of knee pain.

Knee pain can feel dull or sharp, come and go and may cause swelling or redness. It can make it hard to walk or bend your knee.

The type of pain can give clues about what's causing it. A sudden, sharp pain could indicate an injury. A dull, achy pain that worsens with activity might be due to overuse.

Treatment for knee problems can range from rest to surgery, including knee replacement. “If you’re struggling with knee pain and self-care isn’t working, you should see a doctor,” says Heinz Hoenecke, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Scripps Clinic. “Your doctor will diagnose the issue with your knee and provide the best treatment based on the specific issue.”

Sports medicine specialists diagnose and treat a variety of sports injuries and conditions.

Understanding the knee joint

Understanding the knee joint

Your knee is the biggest joint in your body, and it’s made up of bones, ligaments, cartilage, and tendons. Knee pain is any pain or discomfort you feel in or around your knee joint.

Your doctor can diagnose knee problems by listening to your symptoms and examining your knee. They may recommend tests or a scan for a more specialized treatment if needed.

“Because each individual patient is different, the effectiveness of treatments will vary from case to case,” Dr. Hoenecke says.

What are common causes of knee pain?


Dull, achy knee pain may be a sign of osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis. It is commonly known as a wear-and-tear disease and the risk increases with age.

Knee osteoarthritis can happen to younger people too. Studies have found that injuring a joint at any age can raise the chances of getting osteoarthritis early.

Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications can ease pain. Supplements like glucosamine may also help. In mild cases, physical therapists can teach exercises that can help reduce knee pain.

Reducing or avoiding activities that strain the knees can help injuries heal and prevent more damage.


“If running, walking or hiking seem to aggravate the condition, reduce or avoid these activities until the pain symptoms resolve,” Dr. Hoenecke says. “Consider a different type of shoe or try orthotics or shoe inserts that can correct alignment and provide extra cushioning.”


If symptoms don’t improve within a few months, consult a physician or orthopedic specialist.

Torn meniscus

The meniscus is a strong, rubbery cushion between your shinbone and thighbone. It can tear if you twist your knee suddenly while putting weight on it. Symptoms include knee pain, swelling, joint pain, locking and difficulty squatting.

Rest, ice and pain meds can help with pain and let the meniscus heal. If symptoms don’t improve after six weeks, an MRI may be needed to assess the damage. A bad tear may require surgery to repair and prevent further harm.

ACL injury

Ligaments are tough tissues that connect bones in the knee. There are four main ligaments in the knee, and injuries to any of them can cause pain. An anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear is a common knee injury that can cause pain, swelling and instability in the knee.

ACL injuries are common in sports with sudden direction changes like basketball, football, and soccer.

If you hurt your ACL, see a doctor before playing sports. Wait until you are checked and treated by a provider before resuming activities.

Patellofemoral pain syndrome

This condition, also known as “runner’s knee,” causes a dull pain in the front of the knee, near the kneecap. It is often due to overuse, injury, or activities that strain the knee, such as running, jumping or twisting.

Symptoms include pain when bending the knee, going downstairs or running downhill. Rest, over-the-counter pain medicine and physical therapy are usually helpful treatments.

Iliotibial band syndrome

This injury is common among athletes who run or cycle. It causes pain and tenderness on the outer thigh and knee. It is usually due to poor training habits or lack of flexibility. Treatment involves rest, ice, pain medicine and stretching exercises.

When to go to the ER

If you have knee pain, seek urgent or emergency help right away if:

  • Your knee looks bent or deformed.
  • You heard a “popping” sound when you got hurt.
  • Your knee can’t support your weight.
  • You feel intense pain.
  • Your knee suddenly swells.

Preventing knee pain

To avoid or prevent knee pain, exercise regularly, keep a healthy weight, wear good shoes and pay attention to how your body feels.

Exercise helps by making muscles stronger, improving balance and building stronger bones. Keeping a healthy weight is crucial to lessen strain on your knees.

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