Are you wondering why you feel pain behind your knee? Read on to understand the causes of the pain and how you can treat it.
In this article:
- What Is Pain Behind the Knee?
- Why Does Pain Behind the Knee Occur?
- What Are the Serious or Chronic Causes of Pain Behind Knee?
- Who Is at Risk of Pain Behind Knee?
- When Do You Need to See a Doctor?
- How Do You Treat Pain Behind the Knee?
- Where Does Untreated Pain Behind the Knee Lead To?
- What Should Sports Enthusiasts Remember to Avoid the Risk of Pain Behind the Knee?
Pain Behind the Knee | What to Know and How to Treat It
What Is Pain Behind the Knee?
As its name implies, pain behind the knee is when you are feeling an ache behind your knee cap or in the joint. It can be because the area is swollen or stiff.
You may only feel mild symptoms at the start, but ignoring it may affect your knee movement later on.
Why Does Pain Behind the Knee Occur?
There are several reasons why your knees hurt, and these could be any of the following:
- Hamstring Tendonitis
This condition is characterized by sudden pain or stiffness behind the knee at the start of a physical activity which, then, subsides later on. Hamstring tendonitis usually occurs when you run longer distances or participate in marathons and do not get the right hip flexion from improper technique or fatigue.
When this happens, your hamstring gets exhausted and is not able to move the foot forward in the same motion and speed. The results in pain in the back of the knee.
- Baker’s Cyst
Too much running can also lead to Baker’s cyst. This is when you bend and straighten your knee in a repetitive motion.
The result is swelling and aching on the body part.
The cause of Baker’s Cyst is a lack of variation in distance or speed when running that can lead to excessive rubbing of cartilage in and around the knee. The rubbing irritates the posterior surface and soft tissues of your knee cap which causes the pain.
- Torn Meniscus
Your meniscus is a horseshoe-like cartilage located between your upper and lower leg bones. A tear, long term wear, or a sudden twisting or fall of your knee can result in this condition.
Your cartilage supports your knee and makes it steady, and aging and or injury can wear it down, leading to swelling. A mild tear of your meniscus may get better in less than a month, but a moderate tear is what causes the pain.
- Gastrocnemius Tendonitis
The gastrocnemius is a part of the calf muscle that attaches above your knee joint and crosses behind your knee.
In this condition, the gastroc tendons become strained when the knee is extended with the toe pointing upwards. The movement pulls the tendons resulting in muscle extension that can cause pain behind the knee.
Gastroc Tendons Definition: Tendons of the gastrocnemius muscle that combine with the soleus tendons to form the Achilles tendon
- Leg Cramps
Sometimes, the pain behind the knee can just be a simple muscle tightening. Leg cramps are sudden spasms that last from a few seconds to a few minutes.
While most leg cramps happen on your calf, the pain can sometimes come from the muscles at the back of the knee.
They can have a variety of causes, including (but not limited to):
- Nerve damage
After the cramping passes, you can experience some muscle pain for up to a few hours.
- Jumper’s Knee
Jumper’s knee, or patellar tendonitis, is an injury to the tendon that connects your knee cap (patella) to your shin. It can occur during sudden movements when jumping and changing direction.
What Are the Serious or Chronic Causes of Pain Behind Knee?
While most of the time that ache behind the knees is a minor problem, the pain and swelling behind your knee may have a more serious or chronic cause. Some of these reasons include:
Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injury
Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Definition: A band of muscle running through the front of your knee, connecting your thigh to your shin. This ligament helps stabilize your knee.
ACL injuries typically happen when you suddenly change direction while running or moving around. It can also happen after a bad jump or during a contact sport.
These types of injuries can be very painful and make it hard for you to walk and move your knee. You might even feel your knee pop when it happens.
Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL) Injury
Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL) Definition: Another band of muscle running through the front of your knee that connects your thigh to your shin, just like your ACL
Your PCL and ACL work together to stabilize your knee when you move. While not as common as ACL injuries, you can get a PCL injury if you take a blow to your knee, like in a car accident. An injury can also happen from twisting your knee or missing a step while you walk.
Arthritis is a disease where the cartilage that supports your knee starts to wear out. This causes pain and limited mobility on your knees and other joints.
There are a few types of arthritis that can cause pain:
- Osteoarthritis (OA): The most common type and is usually caused by age and normal wear and tear
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): An autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to mistake the joints as foreign bodies and attack them
- Lupus: Also an autoimmune disease that causes tissues the knees and other joints to be inflamed
Deep Vein Thrombosis
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) happens when a clot blocks blood flow in a vein deep inside your leg. This can cause pain at the back of your knee, particularly when you stand up.
Some symptoms that indicate you could be experiencing DVT include leg swelling, redness, and warmth in the general leg area.
Who Is at Risk of Pain Behind Knee?
Athletes like runners and cyclists have a high risk of developing pain behind the knee.
Professional runners who do long-distance running should be extra careful and should warm up in a way that won’t strain the muscles in and around their knees. They can do ankle rotation, calf raises, walking lunges, or hip flexor and glute-activating swing.
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When Do You Need to See a Doctor?
Seek immediate medical care if you:
- Experience severe pain
- Exhibit DVT symptoms like redness and swelling on your leg (the blood clot can travel to the lungs and cause a pulmonary embolism)
- Can’t put weight on your knee
- Have trouble breathing
- Have a history of blood clots or bleeding problems
You also need to see your physician if:
- Pain does not go away or becomes chronic
- There are tenderness and inflammation in the area
- Pain limits your movement
- Pain affects your daily activities
Your physician may perform a physical examination on your knee or run some tests to determine the right treatment.
How Do You Treat Pain Behind the Knee?
Knee pain treatment may vary depending on the cause. You can do the following therapies to help relieve the symptoms based on the advice of your physician:
- Clam Opener Move
You can do the “clam opener move” to reduce symptoms of hamstring tendonitis. Just lie on your back and bend your knees.
Wrap your knee with a resistance band and start opening your legs by pushing against the band.
Do this activity for 25 reps and three sets each day until you feel better.
You may also be advised to do quad sets to strengthen your knee joints and hip strengthening exercises, like clam openers, for full-leg support.
- A Special Massage from a Therapist
For Baker’s cyst, you may need professional help from a physical therapist for a special kind of massage to treat the injury. The massage may relieve the pain, but Baker’s cyst can reoccur if you have a meniscus tear or arthritis.
- Home Remedies
You can perform a home remedy for this condition, such as rest and icing the affected area.
When applying ice, wrap the ice bag with a towel before placing it on your skin. Do this two or three times a day.
- Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (RICE) Treatment
You can follow the RICE treatment to lessen swelling behind the knee. If you are outside, you can wear a calf sleeve to give your leg compression support.
- Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications are another way to relieve swelling and pain while your knee recovers. Examples of over-the-counter NSAIDs include:
- Other Medical Treatments
Other medical treatments for pain behind the knee may include the following:
- Gait analysis for hamstring tendonitis
- Getting an injection or drawing fluid from the affected area for baker’s cyst
- Surgery for a torn meniscus
For more serious injuries, your doctor may use imaging tools like a CT scan or MRI to get a complete picture of the affected area. Treatments like physical therapy and surgery can be considered depending on its severity.
Where Does Untreated Pain Behind the Knee Lead To?
Just like any form of injury or health condition, regardless of the cause, untreated pain behind the knee can lead to great discomfort, limited movement, and a negative impact on your daily routine.
Complications also arise when you don’t treat pain behind the knee. If the cause of the pain is a torn meniscus, it can lead to having weak bones that may develop to arthritis over time.
What Should Sports Enthusiasts Remember to Avoid the Risk of Pain Behind the Knee?
If you are active in sports that can put you at high risk of developing pain behind the knee, make sure you don’t exhaust your knee too much. The more strategies and practices you know and follow that can help you stay fit and active without putting too much pressure on your knee, the better.
Knowing the causes of pain behind the knee allows you to better understand the condition so you know how to deal with it.
Don’t force exercises or sudden or stressful movements to test the level of affectation. Seek immediate advice from a health professional.
Have you had pain behind the knee? How did you handle the condition? Share your experiences in the comments section.
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on January 25, 2019, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.