Knee pain can be caused by injuries, mechanical problems, types of arthritis, and other issues.
A knee injury can affect any of the ligaments, tendons, or fluid-filled sacs (bursae) that surround your knee joint as well as the bones, cartilage, and ligaments that form the joint itself. Some of the more common knee injuries include:
- ACL injury. An ACL injury is the tearing of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) — one of four ligaments that connect your shinbone to your thighbone. An ACL injury is particularly common in people who play basketball, soccer, or other sports that require sudden changes in direction.
- Fractures. The knee bones, including the kneecap (patella), can be broken during motor vehicle collisions or falls. People whose bones have been weakened by osteoporosis can sometimes sustain a knee fracture simply by stepping wrong.
- Torn meniscus. The meniscus is formed of tough, rubbery cartilage and acts as a shock absorber between your shinbone and thighbone. It can be torn if you suddenly twist your knee while bearing weight on it.
- Knee bursitis. Some knee injuries cause inflammation in the bursae, the small sacs of fluid that cushion the outside of your knee joint so that tendons and ligaments glide smoothly over the joint.
- Patellar tendinitis. Tendinitis is the irritation and inflammation of one or more tendons — the thick, fibrous tissues that attach muscles to bones. Runners, skiers, cyclists, and those involved in jumping sports and activities are prone to develop inflammation in the patellar tendon, which connects the quadriceps muscle on the front of the thigh to the shinbone.
Some examples of mechanical problems that can cause knee pain include:
- Loose body. Sometimes injury or degeneration of bone or cartilage can cause a piece of bone or cartilage to break off and float in the joint space. This may not create any problems unless the loose body interferes with knee joint movement, in which case the effect is something like a pencil caught in a door hinge.
- Iliotibial band syndrome. This occurs when the tough band of tissue that extends from the outside of your hip to the outside of your knee (iliotibial band) becomes so tight that it rubs against the outer portion of your femur. Distance runners are especially susceptible to iliotibial band syndrome.
- Dislocated kneecap. This occurs when the triangular bone (patella) that covers the front of your knee slips out of place, usually to the outside of your knee. In some cases, the kneecap may stay displaced and you’ll be able to see the dislocation.
- Hip or foot pain. If you have hip or foot pain, you may change the way you walk to spare these painful joints. But this altered gait can place more stress on your knee joint. In some cases, problems in the hip or foot can refer pain to in the knee.
Types of arthritis
More than 100 different types of arthritis exist. The varieties most likely to affect the knee include:
- Osteoarthritis. Sometimes called degenerative arthritis, osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It’s a wear-and-tear condition that occurs when the cartilage in your knee deteriorates with use and age.
- Rheumatoid arthritis. The most debilitating form of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that can affect almost any joint in your body, including your knees. Although rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease, it tends to vary in severity and may even come and go.
- Gout. This type of arthritis occurs when uric acid crystals build up in the joint. While gout most commonly affects the big toe, it can also occur in the knee.
- Pseudogout. Often mistaken for gout, pseudogout is caused by calcium-containing crystals that develop in the joint fluid. Knees are the most common joint affected by pseudogout.
- Septic arthritis. Sometimes your knee joint can become infected, leading to swelling, pain, and redness. There’s usually no trauma before the onset of pain. Septic arthritis often occurs with a fever.
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Patellofemoral pain syndrome is a general term that refers to pain arising between your patella and the underlying thighbone (femur). It’s common in athletes; in young adults, especially those who have a slight mal tracking of the kneecap; and in older adults, who usually develop the condition as a result of arthritis of the kneecap.
A number of factors can increase your risk of having knee problems, including:
- Excess weight. Being overweight or obese increases stress on your knee joints, even during ordinary activities such as walking or going up and downstairs. It also puts you at increased risk of osteoarthritis by accelerating the breakdown of joint cartilage.
- Lack of muscle flexibility or strength. A lack of strength and flexibility are among the leading causes of knee injuries. Tight or weak muscles offer less support for your knee because they don’t absorb enough of the stress exerted on the joint.
- Certain sports. Some sports put greater stress on your knees than do others. Alpine skiing with its rigid ski boots and potential for falls, basketball jumps, and pivots, and the repeated pounding your knees take when you run or jog all increase your risk of a knee injury.
- Previous injury. Having a previous knee injury makes it more likely that you’ll injure your knee again.
Not all knee pain is serious. But some knee injuries and medical conditions, such as osteoarthritis, can lead to increasing pain, joint damage and disability if left untreated. And having a knee injury — even a minor one — makes it more likely that you’ll have similar injuries in the future.