Causes of Knee Pain When Sitting

Why Your Knees Hurt and How to Find Relief

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Knee pain can impact people of various lifestyles and ages: couch potatoes, active athletes, office workers, the young, and the elderly. Twenty-five percent of the U.S. population struggles with recurring knee pain, especially when sitting or bending down.

Because knee pain is so widespread, it can be difficult to find a single cause for why your knees might hurt. However, anatomy can provide some insight into some of the potential causes of your discomfort.

The knees are one of the body’s major joints. To support your body weight, your knees have soft tissues that help cushion the bones in the joint. When your knees are strong and these soft tissues are healthy, your knee can bend easily and can absorb the impact of your body weight as you move.

However, a couple of conditions may prevent these soft tissues from protecting your knee. If you have arthritis or runner’s knee, you may feel like you cannot bend your knee, or you may have pain when you put weight onto your knee or move in a certain direction.

Fortunately, your doctor can help you find some knee pain relief from your arthritis or runner’s knee so you can sit, stand, and bend with more confidence.

A man sits on a bed, holding his knee

LightFieldStudios / Getty Images

Possible Causes

Arthritis

Of the numerous injuries and chronic illnesses that cause knee pain, arthritis is among the most common. Two types of arthritis, in particular, can lead to knee pain: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Both of these kinds of arthritis can result in similar symptoms: burning, twisting, aching, or pins-and-needles pains. Both of these conditions are chronic; however, osteoarthritis and RA impact your knees in different ways. 

Osteoarthritis is typical of older people, especially those who have worn down their knee joints over time. In osteoarthritis, the soft tissues and cartilage that cushion your joints erode.

Over years of use, these tissues in your knee joints break down, which makes your movement more difficult and more painful. Without the soft tissues to protect the bones in your knees, your knees may lock in place or may be more prone to injury.

Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t break down the soft tissues between your joints. Rather, RA solidifies these tissues. RA is an autoimmune disease that causes your immune system to attack your soft tissues. Over time, the soft tissues between your joints become hard and inflexible.

With RA, your knees may feel stiff, and it may be difficult for you to rotate your legs or to bend over. When you sit down, it may be difficult to extend your legs so you can stand back up. 

Runner’s Knee

Runner’s knee is also known as patellofemoral syndrome or chondromalacia. It’s an umbrella term that refers to the pain near your knee cap, especially if you’ve damaged the soft tissues in your knee.

Runner’s knee can be caused by a wide variety of issues: overexertion during exercise, a hamstring injury that puts more strain on your knees, or being born with a knee cap that doesn’t completely cover your knee joint. Track and field and contact sports athletes are especially prone to knee injuries.

Common symptoms of runner’s knee include pain after you sit down for too long, knee weakness, or a rubbing or clicking sensation as you try to move your knee. Any of these symptoms can cause discomfort and make exercise difficult.

Unlike arthritis, for which there is currently no cure, many variations of runner’s knee are temporary. While many patients find that their runner’s knee improves with rest, physical therapy, and knee support, your doctor can help you come up with an individual care plan that works for your specific condition. 

When to Visit a Doctor

Any source of pain that disrupts your life is a potential reason to seek medical attention.

You may want to visit a doctor if you notice that your knee pain when sitting prevents you from moving around your home or office as you’d like. Your knee pain may discourage you from doing activities that are important to you. However, there are many different kinds of knee pain, so it may be difficult to decide when to seek help.

These are just a few of the many reasons why you may talk with a doctor about your knee pain:

  • You have new pains.
  • Your normal knee pains have changed or worsened.
  • Your pain has persisted for several days.
  • You have an injury.
  • You are uncertain of the cause of your knee pain.

If your pain is more severe, chronic, or might result from arthritis or another serious musculoskeletal condition, your primary care provider may refer you to a specialist.

An orthopedist is a medical professional who specializes in joint and bone conditions, such as osteoarthritis. A rheumatologist focuses on autoimmune conditions like RA. If you have arthritis, these specialists can provide specific insights and treatments to help you mitigate your knee pain. 

Diagnosis

A general practitioner or another medical specialist may use several different methods to diagnose the cause of your knee pain.

Physical Exam

A physical exam can help your doctor understand where and why exactly you are hurting. The doctor may feel your knee to pinpoint swelling, irritation, or potential injuries. They may ask you to walk, stretch, or bend over to observe your range of motion.

Lab Tests

After a physical exam, a doctor may request lab tests. While blood tests are not the most common tool that doctors use to identify knee pain, they can help identify RA or another autoimmune condition, an infection, cancer, or other illnesses that may be contributing to your knee pain.

Imaging

An X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can show your doctor the condition of your skeletal system, so these imaging tests are especially helpful when analyzing if a skeletal issue may be causing your knee pain, such as advanced osteoarthritis or a bone fracture.  

Treatment

Depending on the severity and cause of your knee pain, your doctor may recommend several different treatment options. These plans vary from basic lifestyle changes to surgery. Always ask your doctor before trying any new medications or major lifestyle changes.

Lifestyle Changes

An active lifestyle and a healthy diet can help prevent future knee pain. In fact, a 2013 medical study found that exercise is the first and most common form of therapy that doctors recommend to patients with knee pain from osteoarthritis. Exercises like swimming and yoga can keep your knees flexible without much of the strain of high-intensity sports.

If your doctor approves or more strenuous activity, moderate strength-building exercises can also help you avoid knee injuries by strengthening your thighs and your legs. Strong leg muscles can reduce the stress on your knees.

Regular walking and other easy-to-moderate aerobic exercises are recommended. People may consider investing in supportive shoes or orthopedic shoe inserts to reduce the strain on their knees.

While some foods have been touted as miracle cures to inflammatory disorders such as arthritis, no food has been proven as a sure treatment for knee pain. Nonetheless, a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet can supplement your doctor’s medical routine.

Foods with turmeric, lemon water, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce the inflammation in your knee joints.

Some patients find that complementary or alternative treatments like acupuncture provide temporary pain relief to their painful or swollen knees. 

Medications

Over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol (acetaminophen) are common medications that patients use to relieve their knee pains. Holding a cold or hot compress to your hip may help reduce swelling. 

If you have chronic, moderate-to-severe pains, you may need a more powerful medication to help you cope. For patients with advanced forms of arthritis or serious knee injuries, for example, a doctor may recommend an opioid drug such as oxycodone or hydrocodone. Use opioids only as prescribed to avoid addiction.

Surgery

In some situations, your doctor may recommend that you consider knee replacement surgery. This surgery can be helpful to people who have shattered their knee cap, people who have extensive tissue or bone damage from arthritis, or people with other serious structural issues in their skeletal system. 

As with many other surgeries and invasive procedures, a knee replacement is a last resort for many patients. Nonetheless, a medical study from 2013 found promising results for knee surgery and enhanced mobility for patients with advanced osteoarthritis.

Coping

Your coping strategies will change based on the cause of your knee pain. For example, if an injury or overexertion led to your runner’s knee, you may need to rest and wear a knee brace for extra support. If you have arthritis, though, your doctor may encourage you to adopt more exercise to keep your joints loose and flexible.

While no one coping method will work for every patient, many patients find that the following work strategies work to provide some relief: gentle exercise, stretches, heat or ice packs, and over-the-counter pain medications. Consult with your doctor to determine a medical plan for your needs.

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