Knee Popping: Identifying the Cause and Treatment Options
Up to half of us crack our knuckles as a form of stress relief. It's satisfying, calming, and can relax your hands.
And it's not the only joint – from necks to backs, we all love a good crack. Experts are even clarifying that "cracking knuckles gives you arthritis" isn't actually true. It has officially been declared harmless!
But does that mean all joint popping is risk-free?
That depends. Doctors caveat their claims by saying, "that is – if it doesn't hurt."
If you feel cracking in a weight-bearing joint – like knee popping – it's still possible that it's harmless. But chances are, it's a sign of internal damage or injury.
Most of the time, the give-away is pain. If you feel any discomfort when your knee pops, that's your best indicator that something is wrong.
Why is My Knee Popping?
To help you figure out the problem, we've listed a few common causes of knee popping. They cover painless knee cracking, uncomfortable joint popping, and one-off pops that caused serious pain. Then we'll help you figure out how to treat each one – whether that be at home or with a doctor's help.
The Knee Pops but Doesn't Hurt
If there is no pain when your knee makes a popping sound, it may be harmless. Like all of our joints, the knee is protected and lubricated by a membrane that contains synovial fluid.
From time to time, gas bubbles can build up in this fluid. When you use the joint, it may make a popping sound, just like cracking your knuckles.
But there are two things you still need to watch out for, even if your knee popping doesn't hurt. The biggest clues to more serious problems are if you feel that something is catching, or if the popping sound isn't just occasional.
Mechanical popping may feel like something is actually caught in the knee and pops when you move it. This is more serious than gas bubbles popping in your synovial fluid. It may mean something – most likely cartilage – is loose or torn, causing the catching sensation when it moves.
While this would generally cause pain or swelling, that's not always the case. So many people ignore it, worsening the damage.
If you feel like something is caught inside your knee, it's best to check with a doctor.
Crepitus is the name of the popping noise the gas bubbles in your synovial fluid make. So generally, there's no need to worry.
However, if the sound is frequent or constant, it may be an indicator of an underlying issue. The knee creaking or popping every time it moves suggests cartilage damage. It's best to see a doctor to determine whether it can be healed at home or requires treatment.
The Knee Hurts When it Pops
The knee is more obviously injured if popping causes discomfort or pain. This suggests an issue with the ligaments, tendons, or cartilage that requires medical attention. Here are some of the most common examples of knee damage that causes popping and pain.
Meniscus or Articular Cartilage Damage
Twisting or bending the knee too fast or with too much force can damage the meniscus. The meniscus is part of the cartilage in the knee. It sits between the bones to cushion movement and absorb impact.
If you've torn the meniscus, you may feel something catching in the knee or hear a popping sound when you move it. Swelling, pain, stiffness, and instability walking are also signs this cartilage is damaged.
Treatment options vary greatly depending on the severity of the damage.
Articular cartilage is found elsewhere in the knee but can be damaged much the same way as the meniscus. It has similar treatment options.
More commonly known as a dislocated kneecap, patellar subluxation happens when the kneecap goes off course. Usually, it moves within the trochlea, which is a groove in the thigh bone. But some people are susceptible to it slipping out because their trochlea is shallower.
If this happens, you may hear a popping or snapping sound, followed by pain.
Some dislocated kneecaps fix themselves if given proper rest. Other cases require medical attention to realign the kneecap non-invasively. This treatment should also be followed by rest and care.
In rarer cases, surgery may be required to strengthen the kneecap itself. This is more common in older patients.
Patellar Tracking Problems
Patellar tracking problems are a less severe version of a dislocated kneecap. The kneecap hasn't fully dislocated but still has problems staying securely in the trochlea.
When it slips out, you may hear a popping sound. The knee may also feel less stable to walk on. Twisting, impact, and other problems within the knee are the most common causes.
While at-home treatment can help, it isn't a permanent solution. Physical therapy is the most common treatment option for kneecap tracking problems.
Ligaments connect the knee to surrounding bones, supporting its movement. Sudden movement – like twisting, bending, or stretching – can damage the ligament. This can make a popping sound along with a snapping sensation inside the leg, followed by sharp pain.
Ligament damage is either treated with holistic rehabilitation or surgery. In less serious cases, physical therapy exercises may be able to restore the ligament. But for the most severe damage, surgery is required.
This involves removing the damaged ligament and grafting a tendon into the leg in its place. The tendon can either be your own or that of a donor. Recovery time for this surgery is usually a month for daily activities or six months to return to sport.
Tendons connect your knee bone to surrounding muscles. Overuse or improper stretching before and after exercise can irritate and swell them.
If this happens, they may catch on parts of the knee that they normally wouldn't.
For example, iliotibial band syndrome is when the iliotibial tendon tightens and starts to rub against the bone. Sometimes, this makes a popping or creaking sound when the knee moves.
This is easier to treat than a damaged ligament because it's near the outside of the knee. In fact, you may be able to feel a strained tendon under your skin! For this reason, treatment is easier, usually at-home care or physical therapy.
Baker's Cyst Rupture
It's easy not to notice a Baker's cyst forming behind the knee, especially a small one. But when it pops, you'll know about it.
The cyst bursting causes sharp pain in the knee, and you may feel fluids leaking down your leg from the rupture. The knee or calf may then swell or discolor.
As the cyst has burst, it may mean it's taken care of itself. In that case, home remedies are usually sufficient to heal the damage and reduce the pain.
Sometimes though, a cyst having developed indicates an underlying issue with the joint. If home remedies don't work, seek medical attention. A doctor may recommend non-invasive treatments to heal the original damage.
Do I Need to See a Doctor for Knee Popping?
How do you know if you need to see a doctor about your knee issues? Look out for the following symptoms:
- Reduced mobility
- Inability to stand
- The knee can't take any weight
- Over-the-counter pain killers aren't helping
- Symptoms last more than a few days
If one or more of these symptoms applies to you, we recommend you seek medical attention. Your injury is probably serious and can worsen if not treated soon.
If you're experiencing none of these symptoms, you shouldn't need to worry.
Knee Popping Treatment Options
How to treat knee popping depends on how serious the condition is. Here are the three most popular options and what they entail.
At-home treatment may be an option to heal your knee popping condition if it's not too serious.
But it can take a few days to determine whether a condition is severe enough to see a doctor. So we recommend you always take these steps when you first experience discomfort.
After a few days, if the symptoms have lessened, you may feel that home treatment will be sufficient. But if symptoms are still just as bad or even worsening, that's when you need to see a pain specialist. Either way, this is how you should respond to any painful or uncomfortable knee popping.
The RICE method helps a small knee injury to heal on its own. It comprises rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
That means you should keep the knee rested. Avoid walking on it or putting weight on it for a few days. Also, try to avoid too much movement.
While resting your knee, be sure to ice it. That involves wrapping an ice pack in a towel and holding it on the injury for about 20 minutes, or as long as is comfortable. Do this 3-4 times a day for a few days.
Compressing the knee can keep swelling under control while you're resting. Use compression bandages during the day, but not overnight.
Finally, where possible, keep the knee elevated. Keeping it above the height of your heart can further reduce swelling and inflammation, therefore, pain.
If a few days of the RICE treatment aren't working, your knee may need medical attention. Holistic treatment like physical therapy involves using knee strengthening exercises to regain mobility. When done by a professional, it can help to heal damaged ligaments, tendons, and cartilage.
Some common exercises to gradually restore your knee include:
- Straight leg raises
- Wall squats
- Hamstring curls
- Step ups
Depending on your condition, low-impact exercise may also be recommended by your doctor. Exercises like swimming can restore the knee's strength without it taking any weight.
Another holistic treatment for knee popping is massage therapy. It has been proven effective for knee pain, stiffness, and mobility. A massage therapist can skillfully increase blood flow to the injured area, speeding along recovery.
Holistic treatment is the preferred choice of many because it's non-invasive. That means there are no recovery times other than doing the exercises themselves.
Non-invasive treatment is also low risk. Unlike surgery, you are in control. You can tell your doctor how each exercise feels on the knee, helping them to administer the best care.
Most of the time, natural treatment is also the cheaper option, which is a consideration for many.
For the most serious injuries, surgery may be the only option.
For example, certain parts of knee cartilage are so deep that they don't have access to blood vessels. So stimulating blood flow to the area can't necessarily speed up the healing process.
This makes successful holistic treatment more difficult. In some cases, surgery may be the best option. A consultation with a joint pain specialist is the best way to decide which treatment option is best for you.
Find a Knee Pain Specialist
If your knee popping hurts, we recommend that you see a pain specialist immediately.
While surgery is an option for the worst knee injuries, many conditions can be healed through non-invasive methods. They are low risk, affordable, and offer quick recovery times.
But how can you find a holistic pain specialist that you can trust? At Find a Pain Specialist, that's what we do!
We connect patients across the country with thoroughly vetted doctors. And all at no cost to you! You'll never receive an invoice from us.