Have you ever walked up and down the stairs to the soundtrack of knee clicks? Whether you wake up stiff as a board or as loose as a goose, the clicks, clacks, and pops just seem to show up unannounced. Knee clicks can often lead to confusion and fear—but thankfully, a clicking knee is no real cause for concern.
As you’ll soon find out, there are a number of reasons you might experience knee clicking, and most of the reasons don’t present imminent danger. In fact, knee clicking is extremely common and can happen to anyone, young or old.
The only time knee clicks are really a cause for concern is when they are accompanied by pain or swelling. In these cases, knee clicks and pops, also known as crepitus, can possibly be the result of osteoarthritis, meniscus tears, or cartilage injury.
What Causes That Knee-Clicking Sound While Walking?
As mentioned earlier, most causes of knee clicking are no cause for concern. Here are some of the reasons why your knees might pop and click while you walk up or down stairs, squat to pick something up, or when you extend your leg.
- Cartilage rubbing: There are a number of pieces to your knee joint that are required to keep it healthy and protect it, one of which is cartilage. Cartilage is tissue that lines and protects the bone, but over time this cartilage can grow unevenly. When you bend your knee, the cartilage rubs together and if it’s uneven, it can result in a popping or cracking sound. This becomes more common with age, but is no cause for concern.
- Ligament tightening: Your bones are connected by ligaments, and they lengthen and shorten as you move. Sometimes the ligaments can tighten, but not so much that they are at risk for injury—this can result in pops and cracks.
- Synovial fluid: With all the moving parts that make up your joints, there is a lot of rubbing together. And although the feeling of raw bone-on-bone friction can be extremely painful, this is not the case when the joint is intact with strong ligaments and cartilage. The smooth glide between ligaments is aided by synovial fluid. Synovial fluid protects bones from rubbing together and is made of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrogen. When you stretch or bend, these gases can escape the joint, resulting in a popping or cracking sound. Once again, this is no cause for concern.
Keep in mind that if you experience pain or swelling in the knee, then you’ve got something a little more severe and further treatment is likely required. When your knee clicks and is accompanied by swelling and pain, it could be a result of:
- Meniscus tears: You put your knees through a lot every day, and over the course of your life it really adds up. Just think of all the steps you’ve taken, stairs you’ve climbed, and seats you’ve gotten up from. The bulk of the shock you put on this valuable load-bearing joint is absorbed by the meniscus, a rubbery disc that acts as a cushion. But if you move quickly, the meniscus can tear and the bones may touch, resulting in pain.
- Cartilage injury or wear-and-tear: Sometimes you can injure yourself, causing a piece of cartilage to break off, which can result in swelling. Cartilage breakdown is also a sign of osteoarthritis, and can result in a painful feeling of grinding when you walk. It’s wise to see a doctor about treatment methods for your specific case.
How to Stop the Clicking in Your Knees
Because the majority of crepitus is no cause for concern, there isn’t much you need to do. However, there are some things that might help—mainly exercise. Exercise can help take pressure off the joint and maintain the structure.
When you exercise—preferably using weights, resistance bands, or your own bodyweight—try lower-body focused movements, like squats and lunges, to strengthen your leg muscles and relieve the knee joint. Uphill walking, cycling, and walking can also help strengthen the muscles. Work these muscles two to three times per week for 30 to 40 minutes on non-consecutive days.
Before you work out, do some dynamic stretching, like high steps or side steps so the muscle is nice and loose and there is a sufficient amount of synovial fluid in the joint. Upon completion of the workout, stretch out your legs, making sure to hold each position for at least 20 to 30 seconds.
If you have pain, exercise can help, but there are also some natural remedies worth exploring. Please note that these remedies are not proven to be clinically effective, but there is some anecdotal and epidemiological evidence that shows they have some effect. These remedies include glucosamine and chondroitin, Omega-3 fatty acids (i.e. fish oil), heat packs, and ice packs.
Hill, L., “What Is Your Knee Telling You?” WebMD web site, March 4, 2014; http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/knee-pain/features/knee-cracks-pops?page=2.