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Knee Clicking - What Does it Mean?

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT January 17, 2018 0 Comments

Knee Clicking

Sometimes, knee clicking alerts us to issues in the joint. However, thankfully, clicking in the knee is not usually something to worry about. If your knee keeps clicking, and if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as pain or swelling, then it may be time to speak to your doctor. Read on to learn what causes clicking in the knee and when it may indicate a serious problem.

Understand Your Clicking Knee

It can be unnerving to hear a clicking sound in the knee. In particular, doctors often hear complaints from patients who have noticed their knees clicking when walking or when walking up stairs. Most often, knee clicking is not a cause for concern.

Clicking or popping noises in our joints are often caused by cavitation, when pressure changes in the joints lead to the buildup of small air bubbles, which make a popping noise when they burst. Clicking in the knee when bending is often caused by cavitation, as the bubbles may burst when you move the knee.

  • Other benign reasons for knee clicking include the rolling of tendons, ligaments, or other connective tissue across each other with certain motions. In the knee, this is most common with a deep knee bend. 

However, there can be more serious underlying causes of knee clicking, particularly if it is associated with pain or swelling.

Risk Factors for Knee Clicking

Certain groups of people, or people who participate in certain activities, are at increased risk of developing clicking knees and associated problems, including: 

  • Athletes
  • People who exercise with poor technique
  • Being overweight
  • Previous knee injuries 
  • Older adults
  • People with weak leg muscles

Causes of Knee Clicking

Patients often ask, “Why is my knee clicking?” Associated symptoms can indicate whether your knee clicking is serious. For example, knee clicking when straightening the leg is particularly common and is often totally normal. Knee clicking and pain, however, may be a sign that something is wrong. 

Depending on the symptoms, the cause of knee clicking may be due to one of the following common causes:

Cartilage Injury

The cartilage in our joints absorbs shock and allows our bones to safely glide over one another during movements. 

If you are experiencing knee clicking and pain, you may have injured or damaged the cartilage. Cartilage can wear down over time, but it can also be damaged by a sudden impact or fall.

  • Arthritis and Osteoarthritis

    Gradual wear and tear to the cartilage is common and is often associated with osteoarthritis. There are many different types of arthritis, though osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common secondary to aging or a previous knee injury such as an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear.
    People with osteoarthritis may notice a grinding or crunching noise in their knees, typically associated with symptoms such as stiffness, swelling, or throbbing. OA can also cause the growth of bone spurs secondary to uneven wear, another culprit of knee popping, or crepitus. Arthritis can also be felt in other joints that get overused or out of balance, including the hips, shoulder, wrists, fingers, and ankles.

    Knee Arthritis

  • Meniscus Tear

    The meniscus, a thicker more specialized type of cartilage, acts as a lubricator and shock absorber specifically in our knee joints. We have two menisci in each joint—one on the outer side and one on the inner side of the knee.

    Meniscus tears are common among older people, as the meniscus starts to wear down as we age. The meniscus is also vulnerable to injury following a sharp, twisting motion, such as may occur during sports or exercise.

    Meniscus Tear

  • Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome

    Patellofemoral pain syndrome, also known as runner’s knee, is another common condition. You also might notice painful clicking in the kneecap with other high impact movements like jumping or pivoting. Sometimes, clicking in the kneecap can signal this somewhat ill-defined condition, which essentially refers to pain around the front of the knee and in the kneecap. The clicking is most often a result of poor tracking of the patella itself within the groove it moves in across the knee joint (created by the tibia below and femur- thigh bone- above).

    If you are experiencing knee clicking when running, and it is accompanied by pain, speak to your doctor about patellofemoral pain syndrome.

    Runner’s Knee

Symptoms Associated with Knee Clicking

If your knee keeps clicking, look for other symptoms—some may be obvious, and some may be subtle. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, speak to your doctor or physiotherapist for a professional diagnosis.

Some of the most important symptoms to watch for include:

  • A painful clicking knee
  • Catching of the knee with certain movements
  • Period of locking in the knee
  • Sudden weakness or giving way of the knee
  • Swelling around the knee or kneecap
  • Stiffness in the knee
  • Tenderness around the knee joint

Maintaining Healthy Knees

A clicking knee may not indicate a serious health concern, but taking care of our knees is crucial to maintaining long-term joint health. Follow the below recommendations to keep your knees in good shape:

  • Exercise regularly, and with proper form (get formal instructions from physical therapy sessions if you’re not sure where to start).
  • Strengthen the muscles in your legs to protect the knee joint.
  • Stretch any tight muscles, such as the hamstrings, regularly after exercise. How to Stop Knee Clicking
  • Quickly manage any soft tissue pain with ice, heat, and massage
  • Wear comfortable and well-fitting shoes.
  • Maintain a healthy weight to avoid putting extra stress on your knees.
  • Eat a healthy diet, and increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids by adding oily fish like salmon or mackerel to your diet.

Dealing with Clicking Knees

If your knee keeps clicking, see your doctor or physical therapist for a professional diagnosis, treatment recommendations, and other medical advice that will ultimately preserve your knee health. The clicking or popping sound may be harmless, but diligently monitoring your health is important. It’s important not to ignore the signals your body is giving you when it comes to your knees or any other part of your body. Check for signs of deeper issues, such as pain or swelling. Taking care of our knees is crucial to our overall health, so follow the tips we’ve outlined for healthy, stable joints.


Knee Pain Products


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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