If your knee hurts when you bend it, you may have an injury or another health condition. Depending on the underlying cause, the pain can range in location and intensity.
Your knees bend many times throughout the day. The movement is necessary for daily activities, like climbing the stairs and sitting in a chair. You also bend your knees during exercises like squats and lunges.
The wear and tear of everyday life can take a toll on your knees. Plus, there are several ligaments, tendons, muscles, and bones in the area. If there’s a problem with one of these structures, you might have knee pain when bending your leg.
Some causes of knee pain are minor and can be treated with home remedies. Others require medical attention. Here, we’ll discuss the potential causes of knee pain while bending, along with signs you should see a doctor.
There are several causes of knee pain while bending. Possible conditions include:
- patellofemoral syndrome, which causes a dull ache in front of your knee
- patellar tendonitis, which causes burning and pain in or at the base of your kneecap
- iliotibial (IT) band syndrome, which can cause burning pain outside of your knee that spreads to your hip or thigh
- hamstring tendonitis, which leads to pain behind your knee and thigh
- quadriceps tendonitis, which causes pain above or in front of your knee
- knee bursitis, which may cause swelling, warmth, and pain over or below the knee
- osteoarthritis, which causes diffuse knee pain, swelling, and stiffness in the morning
- injury or trauma to the knee joint or ligaments, which may cause sharp pain, swelling, and difficulty moving the knee
- Baker’s cyst, which might cause tightness and swelling behind your knee
The location of your knee pain can help you pinpoint the cause. Take note if you have:
Pain behind knee when bending
If it hurts behind your knee while bending, it’s likely due to:
- hamstring tendonitis
- Baker’s cyst
- knee injury
Very sharp pain in knee when bending
Conditions that may cause sharp pain while bending include:
- torn ligament or meniscus
- knee or patellar fracture
- patellar tendonitis
Pain above kneecap when bending
If you have pain above your knee when bending, you may have:
- quadriceps tendonitis
- knee bursitis
Pain in front of kneecap when bending
Potential causes of pain in front of or over your kneecap include:
- patellofemoral pain syndrome
- patellar tendonitis
- quadriceps tendonitis
- knee bursitis
- patellar fracture
If your knee pain is mild, home remedies might offer relief. Here’s what you can do:
Change your activity
Pay attention to how your knees feel during different activities. If a certain movement makes your knees hurt, avoid it until you feel better. You can also limit the movement or do low-impact activities instead.
Low-impact activities put less stress on your joints. Examples include:
- water aerobics
The RICE method is a treatment for minor muscle injuries, including those that involve the knee.
“RICE” is an acronym that stands for:
- Rest and avoid placing weight on your knee. This will help the surrounding muscles heal.
- Ice to alleviate swelling and pain. Wrap ice in a plastic bag or clean cloth, and then apply to the affected area 20 minutes at a time, multiple times a day.
- Compress by wrapping your knee with an elastic bandage, which will help reduce swelling. Make sure the bandage is snug but not tight.
- Elevate your knee by placing it higher than your heart. Do this as much as possible to alleviate swelling.
If you have arthritis or stiffness, applying heat may offer more relief. Heat increases circulation.
To reduce pain and swelling, consider taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These medications are available over-the-counter (OTC), so you don’t need a prescription.
Common NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve). Always follow the directions for dosage and frequency unless instructed by a doctor.
During a massage, a therapist uses their hands to apply pressure on your muscles, tendons, and ligaments. This can help relieve and manage knee pain.
Consider sports massage if your knee pain is due to sports or overuse. Sports massage is used to treat athletic injuries.
You can also try:
Knee exercises can help manage knee pain. This includes strengthening exercises that target the muscles that support your knee. When these muscles are healthy and strong, there is less stress on your knee.
It’s also important to do knee stretches. Stretching decreases tension in the surrounding muscles, which decreases pressure on the knee joint.
Be sure to move slowly. If an exercise causes more pain, stop doing it immediately.
The best treatment for knee pain while bending depends on the cause. A doctor might recommend:
A physical therapist can show you specific exercises for your condition. These exercises are designed to improve strength, mobility, and flexibility in your knee.
Orthotics are shoe inserts that stabilize your ankle and foot. They can alleviate pain by reducing pressure on your knee.
Depending on your condition, you might be able to purchase an orthotic at a drugstore. Alternatively, a doctor may suggest a custom-made shoe insert.
If your knee pain is due to an injury, a doctor might have you wear a brace or cast. This will protect your knee and prevent you from moving it, helping to alleviate pain and allow healing.
If your condition doesn’t get better with nonsurgical treatments, you may need surgery.
In general, surgery is only required for severe cases. There are many types of surgery used for knee issues. Here are a few examples:
- anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction, a surgery to repair a torn ACL
- meniscectomy or meniscus repair, to treat a torn meniscus
- total knee replacement
- tibial tubercle transfer, a procedure to improve knee stability
Mild knee pain while bending usually isn’t a cause for concern. However, you should see a doctor if you have the following:
- severe knee pain
- chronic knee pain
- inability to bend or straighten your knee
- swelling or redness in your knee
- knee weakness
- popping or crunching noises associated with pain
You should also seek medical help if you recently had a knee injury accompanied by a popping noise, swelling, or inability to bear weight on the leg.
A doctor will use the following tests to diagnose the cause of your knee pain:
- physical exam, which allows the doctor to check for joint swelling, instability, and signs of swelling
- imaging tests, like an X-ray or MRI scan, to analyze the bone and tissues in your knee
- blood tests, which let your doctor check for signs of systemic inflammatory disorder, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), or infection
Generally, it takes about 6 weeks to recover from a knee injury.
If you need surgery, recovery time can range between 8 weeks to 12 months.
Total recovery time depends on many factors, including:
- the severity of your condition
- type of surgery or injury
- your overall health
- your strength and activity level prior to surgery
- your age
- your treatment plan
As you recover, you’ll need physical therapy to restore strength and function in your knee. You’ll continue physical therapy after the initial recovery period.
It’s possible to prevent or reduce your risk of knee pain. Consider the following tips:
- Avoid or limit movements that cause knee pain. It’s the best way to prevent overuse, which can lead to more severe pain or injuries.
- Do low-impact activities like biking or swimming. Low-impact activities are a great way to stay active while alleviating pressure on your knee.
- Lose weight if you’re overweight. Extra weight can add stress on your knee and increase the risk of knee pain.
- Warm up and cool down before exercise. This will protect your muscles and help prevent injury.
- Add weight training to your workout regimen. Focus on strengthening the muscles that support your knee joint.
- Stretch regularly to loosen tight muscles and improve flexibility.
- Use knee pads while working on your knees. Knee pads will protect your kneecaps and reduce pressure.
If your knee hurts while bending your leg, take it easy. It might be a sign that your legs need to rest. Home remedies like stretching or ice packs can also alleviate pain.
See a doctor if the pain is severe or persistent. A doctor can determine what’s causing your symptoms and help you find relief.