If You Have Pain Behind the Knee, Here’s What It Could Mean
Behind the knee pain could be something as simple as a muscle strain or arthritis—or something more serious. Here’s how to sort through the various causes.
First, evaluate the pain
Pay attention to the type of pain you experience since some causes for pain behind the knee warrant a trip to the emergency room. Miho Tanaka, MD, the director of the Women’s Sports Medicine Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA, says to watch out for blood clots, numbness and weakness in the leg, and fevers and redness associated with swelling. Blood clots should be quickly evaluated, and tingling or numbness that makes it hard to walk are also a sign to go to the ER, Dr. Tanaka says. Although swelling in the knee has many causes, in rare cases, it could be a sign of an infection, so it’s a good idea to seek immediate care. Steven Lyons, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at Florida Orthopaedic Institute in Tampa, FL, adds that knee pain experienced after a major trauma like a fall or a car accident are also appropriate times for an ER visit. If the knee pain lingers longer than a week or two without any prior injury, Dr. Lyons recommends visiting a doctor instead.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, meniscus tears are among the most common knee injuries. The meniscus act as “shock absorbers” between your thigh and shinbones. Someone with a torn meniscus might feel a “pop” along with pain, stiffness, and catching or locking in the knee. These are the signs you have a torn meniscus.
Arthritis and gout
Arthritis and gout, which is inflammatory arthritis, could cause pain behind the knee as well as a few other types of arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common type; it breaks down the cartilage or cushioning between joints, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Psoriatic arthritis also contributes to knee pain, as do autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation and Johns Hopkins Medicine. This is what it feels like to live with gout.
It’s named after the surgeon who first described it, William Morrant Baker. Dr. Lyons explains a Baker’s cyst as a collection of fluid that goes from the front of the knee to the back of the knee and is accompanied by arthritis or a meniscus tear. Dr. Tanaka adds a Baker’s cyst is often a sign of an underlying knee problem and can be quite uncomfortable. “This will typically go away with management of the underlying source of the swelling and treating the arthritis,” she says. Try one of these proven knee-pain treatments.
Calf or hamstring strain or cramp
Sudden activity and overuse are two leading causes of pain behind the knee due to a calf or hamstring strain or cramp, according to Dr. Tanaka. Movements that require pushing off or severe knee bending cause this calf and hamstring pain, respectively. “Both can be managed with ice, rest, gentle stretching, and anti-inflammatories; however, one should seek care if there is swelling or persistent pain associated with this to rule out blood clots,” Dr. Tanaka says. Dr. Lyons adds that although an orthopedist could treat this, if you can’t bear weight on the knee or are at risk of falling, then it’s time to go to the emergency room. Here’s what it’s like to suffer a blood clot.
Various ligament injuries could contribute to behind-the-knee pain. This includes a partially or entirely torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) or MCL (medial collateral ligament), according to the Mayo Clinic. ACL tears are common with athletes, which can tear or stretch while twisting with planted feet. MCLs tear occur when something strikes the outside of the knee, forcing it to buckle. Along with many other knee injuries, both require the RICE treatment approach: rest, ice, compression, and elevation to reduce both pain and swelling, according to Mayo Clinic. Get to know the secrets pain doctors won’t tell you.
- Miho Tanaka, MD, director of the Women’s Sports Medicine Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA.
- Steven Lyons, MD, orthopaedic surgeon at Florida Orthopaedic Institute, Tampa, FL.
- Arthritis Foundation: “What Is Osteoarthritis?”
- National Psoriasis Foundation: “About Psoriatric Arthritis.”
- Johns Hopkins: “What Are Common Symptoms of Autoimmune Disease?”
- Sports Health: “Baker’s Cyst: Diagnostic and Surgical Considerations.”
- Mayo Clinic: “Knee Pain Causes.”
- Mayo Clinic: “ACL Injuries.”