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How to Stop Knee Clicking, Cracking & Popping

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT June 30, 2021 0 Comments

wearing knee brace

Joint popping and cracking is a pretty normal occurrence with daily activities. It most often occurs when small air bubbles within the joint capsule cavitate with movement, which is a harmless occurrence. However, when knee clicking is constant or accompanied by symptoms like pain, swelling, and stiffness, you may be feeling concerned- and rightfully so. When knee clicking becomes a problem, it’s time to determine what home treatment options can help and talk to your doctor. Keep reading to learn about how to stop knee clicking (when necessary). 

How to Stop Knee Clicking & Cracking

Managing knee clicking and cracking all begins with understanding what is causing it in the first place. Once you understand this, you can decide which of the following options is best for your knee recovery. If you have no idea where to start or you’re not sure what might be causing your knee to pop, you should strongly consider getting physical therapy treatment. A physical therapist can help diagnose any imbalances within the knee that need to be addressed with one or more of the following remedies below. 

Proper Warm Up

One of the easiest ways to prevent unnecessary knee clicking is with an appropriate warm up. When local tissues are “cold” and stiff in the knee, they are more likely to rub and pop. A warm up should involve low intensity moves that warm up the muscles you will be using during your formal exercise routine or other daily activities. 

While most people think of stretching as a warm up, it’s not always necessary to do formal stretches. That is unless you know you have some particularly stiff problem areas in your legs that could use a good stretch- such as the hamstrings, quads, hip flexors, hips, or calves. Otherwise, choose one of the following options to get your blood circulating:

  • Light jogging
  • Walking
  • Mini-squats
  • Marching in place
  • Mini-lunges
  • Leg swings (sideways or front to back)

Strengthening Exercises

Muscle weakness or imbalances can be the culprit of your knee cracking, especially if it is becoming painful and affecting the way you would normally move. Regularly completing a well-rounded lower body strength routine can help. Here are some basic leg moves to get you started:

  • Donkey Kicks

    A great exercise for glute and core strength.

    • Get on your hands and knees
    • Keep your hands directly under the shoulders and knees under the hips 
    • Tighten your abs and keep your spine relatively flat as you lift on knee off the ground
    • Extend your hip behind you as you straighten the knee and kick at a diagonal toward the back wall and ceiling
    • Keep the move slow and controlled for 10-15 repetitions on each side, for up to 3 sets per day
    • Add a resistance band or weight to progress
  • Clam Shells

    This exercise targets the side of the hips and glutes. 

    • Lie on your side with the leg you want to work closest to the ceiling
    • Stack your legs and bend your hips and knees to approximately 45 degrees
    • Tighten your abs to keep your hips stacked as you lift your upper knee toward the ceiling
    • Lift as high as possible (without rolling or pain) and hold for 1-2 seconds before returning to the starting position
    • Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets as needed
    • Again, add a resistance band or weight to progress
  • Supine Alternating Leg Press

    Great for core, quad, and hip flexor strength. 

    • Lie on your back 
    • Tighten your abs to keep your low back flat against the floor
    • Bring your hips and knees to 90 degrees, known as table top position
    • Straighten one leg while bringing it as close to the floor as possible and keeping good form
    • Alternate sides, repeating 10-15 times on each leg for 2-3 sets total
    • When you’re ready, add a band to the bottom of your feet to push against with your heels

Form with Everyday Movements

Don’t forget about all the functional moves you do each day; simply focus on keeping good form and lower body alignment.

  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Jumping
  • Single leg balance

Proper Footwear

It’s important to understand that the entire body is interconnected when it comes to proper joint mechanics. If the foot and ankle are stiff or not well supported, this can definitely put strain on the knees and lead to unnecessary symptoms like clicking, or crepitus. What type of shoe is right for your feet depends on a lot of factors, such as flexibility, activity level, and type of arch (flat feet, high arch, etc.) Ultimately, it’s best to research orthotic options related to your unique needs. If you’re not sure what is right for you, talk to your local shoe expert, podiatrist, or physical therapist for recommendations.

Knee Supports

Sometimes the knee just needs some extra basic support to help minimize the effect of knee crepitus and pain. The primary reason that knee support, like a knee sleeve or even a slightly bulkier knee brace, is beneficial is the feedback they give you when completing daily movements. Knee support helps you better assess and adjust how you are moving, known as proprioception. Plus, it keeps your knee joint tissues warm and more flexible as well. These affordable options are certainly worth trying to reduce knee pain caused by clicking. Additionally, if your pain is caused by patellar (kneecap) issues, such as occurs with runner’s knee, you might also consider trying patella straps that take direct pressure off the tendon and promote blood flow.

Choosing the Best Knee Brace

Compression Therapy

If there is swelling present in your knee, compression therapy can help quickly reduce local inflammation, stiffness, and pain. Most simply, you can utilize a basic knee sleeve for daily activities, as discussed above. Otherwise, you might consider pairing compression with other pain relieving modalities like ice. The easiest way to do this is to grab an ice pack and wrap it firmly with an ace bandage. Alternatively, you can get a knee wrap designed to provide ice and pressure all at once or even invest in a pneumatic ice wrap that includes an air pump.

Apply ice and compression for 15-20 minutes at a time every 2-3 hours as needed throughout the day. For bonus points, elevate your leg while you’re doing it too.

More About Compression Therapy

Cross Training

Regular exercise of any type is great for general health. Unfortunately, too much of a good thing can lead to overtraining of specific muscle groups around your knee. If one muscle becomes over-dominant in the leg, this can lead to imbalances in the knee that can cause a popping sensation. For example, hamstring dominance is common and can put a lot of extra strain on the back of the knee. Thus, it’s important to vary your workouts throughout the week to make sure you are keeping all your muscle groups strong and balanced. If you run or bike most days of the week, mix it up a few times a week with swimming, weight training, yoga, or any other exercise that works the legs while giving them a break from their normal mode of movement.

Avoid Long Periods of Sitting

 

Anyone that has sat too long in one position knows how this can make your body feel. Common areas that are affected by long periods of sitting include the back, hips, and knees. For your overall health, it’s always best to take frequent breaks (at last 5 minutes every hour if possible) to stand up, stretch, and reset. You can even set a timer if you tend to get lost in your work or other current activity. If you just can’t escape your desk or couch at certain times of the day, then consider other ways to keep your knees moving; like seated leg exercises or a small pedal exerciser under your desk to at least keep your legs moving.  

Sleeping Posture

If you sleep on your side it can exacerbate knee pain. Try a knee pillow to align the hips and reduce unnecessary strain to the side of the hip and knees when you are lying on your side.

Knee Pain When Sleeping

Vitamins & Supplements

There are great supplement options on the market that can potentially help boost your overall joint health and reduce inflammation. Supplements that contain ingredients like turmeric (curcumoids), chondroitin, and glucosamine have been shown to have positive effects on joint tissues by promoting cartilage health and reducing local joint stiffness and pain. Plus, taking any vitamins that you are deficient in can also help boost your body’s overall ability to function and heal itself optimally. Talk to a doctor or nutritionist about how to get the right balance of nutrients in your diet, whether it's from food or supplemental vitamins.

Self-Massage

Massage is another great tool for reducing stiffness in the muscles around the legs to prevent imbalances that could cause clicking. With self-massage, the hardest part of getting started is actually finding the time and remembering to do soft tissue massage consistently to get the best effects.

  • For large muscle groups around the legs, a foam roller is a great tool for self-massage. You can use it to roll over the quadriceps, hamstrings, iliotibial band (IT band), glutes, and calves (look at demonstrations here).
  • To address smaller problem areas or specific muscle knots, such as in the side of the hips or any other specific problem area, you might use something more targeted like a lacrosse ball set
  • Choose a massage method that you can tolerate without tensing up and that leaves you feeling relaxed when you’re done after 5-10 minutes.

When to Seek Formal Care for Knee Clicking

There are a few primary symptoms to watch out for that would warrant a visit to your sports medicine doctor for further investigation. 

  • If you are experiencing locking or catching sensations, this is an indicator that you may have torn your meniscus. A meniscus tear is best managed with medical guidance.
  • If you hear a loud pop or have sudden knee instability, especially after a high impact knee injury, the integrity of your ligaments such as the ACL, may need to be assessed.
  • If your knee clicking is associated with joint pain and stiffness that is gradually getting worse, you may need to start formal treatment for osteoarthritis.
  • Depending on the severity of your injury, you may then be referred to an orthopedic surgeon.

Improving Knee Health

Whether you’re dealing with a clicking sound in your knee or any other form of knee dysfunction, the tips we just reviewed are great for boosting general knee health. Remember, it’s important to make changes to your health routine for your knee one step at a time. Thus, it’s best to choose one recommendation at a time and give it a try. That way you know what’s working best for you and you can slowly make changes without getting overwhelmed. If the whole process is still feeling overwhelming or your symptoms are getting unbearable, talk to your healthcare provider or physical therapist for further medical advice.

Sources:

https://www.livestrong.com/article/537454-leg-muscle-warm-up-exercises/

https://www.self.com/story/joints-popping-crepitus

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Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.



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