You may hear your knee popping when you stand up or cracking while you walk up stairs. Joint noises such as popping, clicking, snapping, and cracking are common, but often misunderstood. Keep reading to learn why and how knee popping happens and when you should be concerned.
The knee joint is composed of three bones and is supported by a number of ligaments. Our knees move with the help of several tendons and large muscles. These structures may be damaged by degeneration, injury, trauma, or strenuous activities, which can result in popping and cracking in knee joints.
Knee Popping: No Pain
There are many possible explanations for popping knees. Knee popping without pain is caused by tiny bubbles of gas inside the joint, which build up with changes in joint pressure. When these air bubbles burst quickly, they make a knee clicking and popping sound. Another cause for popping knees without associated pain is when the tendons and ligaments stretch slightly. They go over a small bony lump and pop when they snap back into place. With popping knees, no pain means no damage to the joint.
Most of the time, those sounds are natural and do not indicate a high risk of injury or arthritis. When clicking noises occur with pain and discomfort, however, see your doctor to rule out serious health conditions.
Causes of Knee Popping
If a cracking or popping feeling in knee joints is accompanied by intense pain, you will want to take it more seriously. Here are the most common causes of knee popping with pain.
Painful knee popping may be caused by an MCL injury, where the inner side of the knee is overstretched and tears. Debilitating knee pain after injury happens because of a blunt force trauma through the outside of the knee, such as a sudden pivot or tackle.
Another common problem that leads to a grinding or popping sensation is an ACL injury, where the anterior cruciate ligament is damaged, either fully or partially. Studies show that 50% of ACL tears are accompanied by a cracking sound and immediate pain and swelling. ACL injuries happen after a hard blow to the side of the knee, when the leg bends backward too far, or when the knee twists awkwardly.
Osteoarthritis is the wear and tear of the cartilage. Osteoarthritis in the knee develops gradually over time and is common among people above the age of 50. As the cartilage thins and weakens due to aging, the surface of the joint becomes rough and friction occurs, which causes the knee to pop and swell.
Runner’s knee, also known as patellofemoral pain syndrome, may cause knee pain and popping noises. A grinding sensation happens when the kneecap roughly rubs against the thigh bone as the knee moves. Runner’s knee can get worse with prolonged activity, such as repetitive bending, high-stress exercises, and running.
Sometimes, a swollen knee, popping sound, and intense pain develop over time, without any obvious injury. Frequent knee clicking may be caused by a tear in the meniscus. When this cartilage that lines the joint is damaged, small pieces of it can catch in the knee and may be what causes knee popping. A meniscus tear usually happens during sports such as football, basketball, tennis, and soccer, which involve sudden twisting and deep squatting.
Chondromalacia patella is often the cause of persistent pain and popping behind knee joints. Chondromalacia patella is the inflammation and irritation of the cartilage in the back of the kneecap. In this case, the constant friction between the thigh bone and the back of the patella is what causes popping in the knee.
Symptoms of Knee Popping
Popping and cracking in knee joints can signal something is wrong. You should worry about a constant knee popping sensation if:
Knee swelling and popping is accompanied by stiffness or tenderness.
You have painful knee popping when straightening the leg.
It is occurring frequently in one location.
You have difficulty bending your leg.
Knee pain and popping tends to come and go.
Diagnosing Knee Popping and Cracking
See your doctor right away to diagnose your symptoms. Excessive knee popping requires a thorough examination to rule out serious injury. Your doctor will ask questions about your recent activities and will assess your medical history. Be sure to mention whether the popping noises happened at the time of injury.
MRI scans or X-rays may be used to study the soft tissue and cartilage. Sometimes, a blood test may be recommended and fluid may be extracted from the knee. Let your doctor know if your knees are popping all the time or if you experience instability.
Treatment for Knee Locking and Popping
Depending on the location and severity of your injury, treatment options for a popping knee joint include:
Knee locking and popping, coupled with pain and swelling, can affect your active lifestyle. Take a few days off from sports and morning walks until pain subsides. If there is swelling, elevate your knee on a pillow each time you sit or lie down.
Cold therapy reduces inflammation and keeps the knee joints from stiffening up. Use an ice pack for fifteen to twenty minutes, two to three times a day. Cold therapy is one of the best ways to keep your knees at full performance.
Cold therapy reduces swelling and numbs pain for immediate relief. ( See Product)
Wearing the correct knee support is crucial for anyone who suffers from painful knee popping and cracking. A brace can reduce the popping noises, relieve other symptoms, and keep potential injuries at bay. Wearing a knee support is also a smart preventative measure.
Wraparound knee braces provide adjustable support and compression to alleviate pain and prevent further damage. ( See Product)
Knee braces support the knee while reducing pain and inflammation. A universal knee brace supports the knee while providing adjustable compression to reduce swelling. For even greater levels of stabilization, a hinged knee brace provides maximum support and prevents further damage to the joint.
Hinged knee braces offer the greatest amount of support and compression, perfect for severe injuries. ( See Product)
Compression knee sleeves are a common treatment option for knee popping and cracking. They are easy to find, affordable, and comfortable to wear. Compression knee sleeves provide pain relief and structural support. Apart from reducing pain, high-quality knee sleeves promote a healthy range of motion and increase the stability of the knee.
Compression reduces swelling and improve circulation, which relieves discomfort and promotes healing. ( See Product)
Patella straps wrap around the leg, below the knee. They provide protection and support for those suffering from painful knee injuries and knee popping. Patella straps apply targeted compression to the patellar tendon to take the stress off of the knee joint.
Patella straps apply targeted compression to the tendon below the kneecap, alleviating pain associated with knee popping. (See Product)
Weakness in the leg muscles means the knee joint is not supported properly. Muscle weakness drastically increases the risk of a knee injury. Knee stretching and strengthening exercises can relieve and prevent severe pain and popping in knee joints. Listed below are several knee popping exercises, which you can perform safely and effectively at home. Consult your doctor before beginning any exercise routine.
Step 1: Lie on the floor with your knees and legs straight in front of you.
Step 2: Push your affected knee down to tighten the quadriceps.
Step 3: Hold the position for 3 seconds, then relax.
Step 4: Repeat 5 to 10 times every 3 to 4 hours.
Step 1: Sit on a chair with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
Step 2: Slowly lift your affected leg and straighten the knee.
Step 3: Hold the position for 3 to 5 seconds, then gently lower your foot.
Step 4: Perform 5 to 10 repetitions at least 3 times a day.
Step 1: Sit on a chair with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
Step 2: Slowly lift your right knee and foot as high as is comfortable, then lower your leg.
Step 3: Alternate lifting your knees. March your legs up and down one at a time.
Step 4: Do this for about a minute, twice daily.
Step 1: Stand up straight, holding on to a chair or table for balance.
Step 2: Slowly lift your right foot, keeping your thigh vertical.
Step 3: Hold the position for 3 to 5 seconds, then lower your leg slowly.
Step 4: Perform 5 to 10 repetitions, twice a day.
Sit to Stand
Step 1: Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Cross your arms across your chest.
Step 2: Lean forward, lift your bottom, and slowly stand straight. Return to the starting position.
Step 3: Perform 5 to 10 repetitions.
As your muscles get stronger, increase the number of repetitions for each of these exercises for knee popping. You will notice improved symptoms after a month of regular exercise. When you feel your knees are ready, ask your doctor if you can move to intermediate and advanced knee strengthening exercises.
See your doctor if simple remedies do not provide relief. Recurrent knee pain and popping due to injury or other serious conditions may require surgical repair. A severe ACL knee injury, for example, may require knee surgery, especially if the knee buckles. Ask your doctor about the benefits and risks of each procedure.
Care and Prevention for Knee Popping
Occasional knee popping when walking is normal, but if you are experiencing constant knee popping and pain when bending or kneeling, contact your doctor immediately. Knee joint popping, when accompanied by pain and swelling, can make daily tasks difficult and painful. Seek treatment early for a timely popping knee recovery. Follow your doctor’s instructions to treat popping in the knee, and employ cold therapy, a quality knee support, and gentle exercise to help your knees regain full strength.
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