Knee pain is one of the most common complaints as we age – but it is a pain that comes in many forms. Some types of knee pain are more serious than others. So how do you know what your knee pain means, and how to treat it?
Today we will be discussing the most common types of knee pain – what they might come from, what the outlook is, and some possible avenues for relief.
But before we dive into the types of knee pain, it’s important to understand how your knee joint functions on the whole, so you can better understand what the location and severity of your knee pain could mean for you.
An overview of your knee joint
Your knee is one of the most complex joints in your body. It connects your thigh bone (femur) to your shin bone (tibia), and there is a layer of cartilage between those bones that cushions them and absorbs impact during your activities.
In addition to bones and cartilage, the knee joint contains many ligaments, including your LCL, MCL, ACL, and PCL. These are strong and flexible connective tissues that hold your bones in proper position.
The MCL (medial collateral ligament) is on the inner side of your knee. It attaches your tibia and femur together. On the outer side of your knee is the LCL (lateral collateral ligament) which connects your fibula and femur together. These collateral ligaments prevent your knee from moving side to side too much.
Your ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) are located deep inside your knee joint.
The two cruciate ligaments are inside your knee joint. The ACL is located at the front of your knee, and the PCL is at the back. They cross over each other, and connect your femur to your tibia. They help control the forward and backward motion of your knee.
Then, the whole thing is capped off in front (quite literally) with your kneecap. Your kneecap protects the integrity of your knee joint, and is held in place by the patellar ligament underneath, and the quadriceps tendon above.
An injury-prone joint
With so many moving pieces, there are lots of ways things can go wrong – which creates the potential for many types of knee pain. Your knee is a hinge joint, which means it is only meant to bend and straighten, not twist around. That’s why it’s easy to injure your knee if it experiences a sideways torque.
Not all knee pain comes from injury, however. Many types of knee pain come from genetic conditions, overuse, or general wear and tear over time.
But what are the most common types of knee pain, and what should you do about each of them? Let’s take a look at the different types of knee pain.
6 common types of knee pain
Here are some of the most common types of knee pain and what they might mean for you:
1. Inner knee pain
Inner knee pain, also referred to as “medial knee pain,” is pain on the side of your knee nearest to the middle of your body. There are a few types of knee pain you can experience in your inner knee, and they may mean different things for your joint.
If you received a blow to the outside of your knee that caused it to buckle inwards, you may have damaged your MCL. Some activities like skiing, swimming breaststroke, or cycling, can also put you at risk of overworking or aggravating your MCL.
An MCL sprain or strain should be diagnosed by a doctor. They can help you decide if surgery, or rest and physical therapy, is best in your case.
Although your ACL is deep within your knee joint, the pain of an ACL tear can sometimes present as inner knee pain. If you suddenly twist, change direction, or overextend your knee, it is possible to fully or partially tear your ACL. ACL injuries are common in sports.
If you’ve injured your ACL, it’s important to have a doctor assess the proper treatment plan for you.
The cartilage that cushions your knee joint is often called the “meniscus.” A meniscus tear is when there is a rip in your knee cartilage. This can occur from sudden twists and direction changes, just like an ACL tear, but it can also be caused by heavy lifting.
In addition, general wear and tear as we age can cause meniscal tears without an actual injury. Unfortunately, cartilage doesn’t usually heal on its own, so meniscal tears may be something you simply manage, or that your doctor advises surgery for.
Tears aren’t the only thing that can affect your knee cartilage. Overtime, your cartilage can break down and cause your bones to grind against each other. This is known as osteoarthritis, which some people simply refer to as “arthritis.”
Osteoarthritis usually affects people over the age of 45.
Osteoarthritis can sometimes be referred to as “knee bone pain,” even though the nerve endings in your bones are likely not the issue. You may associate the feeling as knee bone pain because it is so deep in your joint.
Because your bones are grinding, they cause damage to surrounding connective tissues and add inflammation to your joint, which can result in chronic burning and aching. If you feel this aching “knee bone pain,” there are many home remedies for knee pain that you can try.
Of course, if you truly want to find relief from long-term joint pain, surgery may be the best answer. Your doctor can advise you on the best options based on your pain and mobility levels.
Patellofemoral pain syndrome
Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) is pain between your kneecap (the patella) and your thigh bone (the femur). If your kneecap doesn’t track properly and moves out of alignment, it can cause a feeling of burning and pressure, and your knee may make “popping” sounds.
Usually, PFPS causes pain in the front of your knee, right behind your kneecap, but it can also present as inner knee pain. PFPS doesn’t have a cure, but targeted physical therapy can help to better align your joint and reduce symptoms.
As all these types of knee pain in the inner knee have different causes and treatment options, it’s important to get a proper diagnosis from your doctor to move forward with relief for your inner knee pain.
2. Outer knee pain
Outer knee pain, or lateral knee pain, is pain on the outer side of your knee. There are several potential causes of outer knee pain.
Iliotibial band syndrome
The iliotibial band, or IT band, is a band of connective tissue that runs from your hip to the bottom of your knee on the outside of your leg. If you overuse your knee, the IT band can become sore or inflamed, causing iliotibial band syndrome.
IT band syndrome is most common in runners and cyclists and can usually be treated with rest and physical therapy.
If you suffer a blow to the inside of your knee that puts stress on your LCL, it may cause the LCL to tear. LCL tears often require surgery, but can sometimes be treated with a knee brace and physical therapy if the tear is only partial.
We discussed meniscus tears as a cause of inner knee pain, but they can cause outer knee pain too, depending on the location of the tear. A doctor will be able to diagnose tears in your knee cartilage and form the best treatment plan.
Osteoarthritis can cause pain in any part of your knee joint, including the outer knee. Your doctor will be able to tell you which of these issues is affecting your knee joint.
3. Pain behind your knee
Next in our list of types of knee pain is posterior knee pain. This is pain that presents at the back of your knee joint.
If you tear your PCL, the pain usually presents in the back of your knee. As with other ligament tears, your doctor will be able to advise you whether or not surgery is needed to repair your ligament.
Another common cause of pain behind the knee is a Baker’s cyst. This is a fluid-filled sac that grows at the back of your knee. It can cause pain and a feeling of tightness, and there may be a notable bulge that you can feel.
Baker’s cysts may resolve on their own, or may require corticosteroid injections or a procedure to drain the fluid. Your doctor can help you decide the best course of action.
4. Chronic knee pain
An unfortunately high number of people live with chronic knee pain, especially as they grow older. Chronic knee pain usually presents as a dull burning discomfort or constant ache. Occasionally, you will experience shape, shooting pains during certain activities.
Your knee pain may be worse by the end of the day, when using stairs, or when sitting for long periods.
Chronic knee pain can usually be helped through home remedies like NSAIDs or knee pain supplements, but it’s important to remember that chronic knee pain is usually a life-long problem to be managed – not cured.
Chronic pain in your knee is usually caused by osteoarthritis or patellofemoral pain syndrome. In either case, it is structural damage or imbalances that are causing your pain.
5. Mild knee pain
If you have been experiencing mild knee pain, it’s not necessarily a cause for worry. You may have simply overused your joint, or tweaked it in a way that caused irritation.
Keep an eye on your knee pain, however. If it doesn’t go away within a few days, or starts to worsen, you should book an appointment with your doctor for a proper diagnosis. Your mild knee pain could be the beginning signs of a more serious, developing issue.
6. Severe/Acute knee pain
Usually, you only feel acute knee pain from an injury or infection in your knee. If you have tears to your meniscus or ligaments, you may feel a severe, acute knee pain.
If you are feeling severe knee pain, you should get to a doctor or hospital as soon as possible. Prolonging care may cause worse damage to your joint.
A doctor will be able to properly diagnose where your severe knee pain is coming from, and prescribe pain medication and lifestyle changes to ease your symptoms while your knee heals. You may need to be booked in for a surgery to find relief from your severe knee pain.
How to treat your knee pain
Now that you have a better understanding of different types of knee pain, it’s important to know how to treat them. Of course, your doctor will be able to give you an ideal treatment plan when they diagnose you, but here are some general treatments for different types of knee pain:
Non-surgical knee treatments
If you have chronic or mild knee pain, you may be able to find relief for knee pain without surgery. This is also true if you have a ligament injury that isn’t a full tear. With the right rest and at-home treatments, many mild ligament injuries are able to heal on their own.
Your doctor can help you decide what to take for knee pain, and this may include NSAIDs or daily collagen supplements.
Your cartilage and ligaments are made predominantly of collagen. If you have an injury or breakdown of any of these connective tissues, collagen supplements can give your body the building blocks it needs to strengthen and repair these tissues.
The best collagen for joints is one that is hydrolyzed (or better yet, nano-hydrolyzed). This is collagen that has gone through a chemical process to break it down into smaller pieces that are easy for your body to digest and utilize.
In addition to taking collagen and pain medication, your doctor may advise you to start physical therapy to help strengthen and stabilize your knee joint.
Of course, not all types of knee pain can be addressed without surgery.
Surgical knee treatments
Some types of knee pain, such as severe pain from a full ligament tear, or chronic knee pain that has become unbearable, can only be helped through surgery.
There are as many types of knee surgery as there are types of knee pain, including full knee replacement surgery, surgically implanted cartilage, and surgeries to reconnect torn ligaments.
Recovery time for knee surgery can vary greatly depending on what kind of surgery you need. Regardless, collagen supplements can be used to shorten your recovery time. Just as collagen may help cartilage and ligaments to heal without surgery, it can also assist with wound healing after surgery.
The best collagen for knees
As you can see, collagen can be used to treat most types of knee pain. You can ask your doctor if collagen would help in your case. If so, it’s best to look for a medical-grade collagen.
Medical-grade collagen is FDA-regulated, hydrolyzed for better absorption, and trusted by doctors across the country for use in medical facilities. Collagen can work alongside surgical and non-surgical treatments to help you find relief for your knee pain once and for all.