Causes of Knee Pain When Sitting

Why Your Knees Hurt and How to Find Relief

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Twenty-five percent of the U.S. population struggles with recurring knee pain, especially when sitting or bending down. There are many different causes of knee pain. Knee pain while sitting can affect people of all ages who have varying levels and types of physical activity.

It can be stressful to have pain while sitting because sitting is the most convenient way to carry out many of your day-to-day activities—driving, riding a bus, and getting things done at the computer, for example. If you have knee pain while sitting, your doctor can identify the cause and help you find relief so you can sit, stand, and bend with more confidence.

A man sits on a bed, holding his knee

LightFieldStudios / Getty Images

Possible Causes

Your knee joints are composed of several structures, including soft tissues that help cushion the bones in the joint.

Several conditions can cause your knees to hurt when you bend them. With the most common— arthritis or runner’s knee—you may feel like you cannot bend your knee, or you may have pain when you bend, move, or put weight onto your knee.

Arthritis

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 more common with aging and it occurs due to the wearing down of joints as a result of injuries or wear and tear. In osteoarthritis, the soft tissues and cartilage that cushion your joints erode, making movement 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.
  • RA is an autoimmune disease that causes your immune system to attack your joint tissues. Over time, the inflammation causes the soft tissues to break down. With RA, your knees may feel stiff, and it may be difficult for you to rotate your legs or bend your knees. And after you sit down, it may be difficult to extend your legs so you can stand up again. 

Runner’s Knee

Runner’s knee, also known as patellofemoral syndrome, is pain near your knee cap that occurs due to damage of 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 an abnormally shaped kneecap, or a kneecap that doesn’t glide properly. 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.

Runner’s knee is often temporary and can improve 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

You should visit a doctor if you have knee pain when sitting, especially if it prevents you from moving around your home or office as you’d like.


Talk with a doctor if you have:

  • New knee pain
  • Your normal knee pain has 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 severe, chronic, or seems to signal a serious musculoskeletal condition, your primary care provider may refer you to a specialist:

  • An orthopedist is a surgeon who specializes in treating joint and bone conditions, especially those that could improve with surgical intervention.
  • A rheumatologist is a physician who diagnoses and treats autoimmune conditions like RA.

Diagnosis

Your doctor may use several methods to diagnose the cause of your knee pain.

Physical Exam

A physical exam can help your doctor understand exactly where and why 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 your knee to observe your range of motion.

Lab Tests

After you have a physical exam, your doctor may request lab tests. For example, blood tests 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 help your doctor visualize the condition of your bones and joints, and can usually be used to identify 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 range 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 some types of knee pain. In fact, a 2013 medical study found that exercise is the first and most common form of therapy that doctors recommend for managing knee pain from osteoarthritis. Exercises like swimming and yoga can keep your knees flexible without much of the joint strain of high-intensity sports.

If your doctor approves more strenuous activities, moderate strength-building exercises can also help you avoid knee injuries by strengthening your thighs and 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 for inflammatory disorders such as arthritis, no food has been proven as a sure treatment for arthritis or for any type of knee pain. Nonetheless, a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet can supplement your doctor’s medical recommendations.

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

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

Medications

Holding a cold or hot compress to your hip may help reduce pain and joint swelling. Over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol (acetaminophen) are commonly used to relieve knee pain.

If you have chronic, moderate-to-severe pains, you may need a more powerful medication to help you cope, such as prescription-strength pain medications or anti-inflammatories.

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 often considered only after more conservative measures have been tried. 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 everyone, gentle exercise, stretches, heat or ice packs, and over-the-counter pain medications are usually helpful for mild knee pain that occurs while sitting. Consult with your doctor to get a plan that's right for you.

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