How Serious Is Your Knee Symptom?

Our knees buffer us as we pursue the activities of day-to-day life. Over time, wear and tear can take a toll on knee function. We review common knee symptoms, and explain the potential causes for each problem.


Our knees serve us faithfully for years. Then, suddenly we notice a popping sound when we straighten up, or wake up with swelling we never had before. Symptoms of knee problems can range from stiffness in the morning to a feeling of pain when we descend stairs. Although only your doctor can properly diagnose the cause of knee symptoms, we have listed some of the most common knee problems that people experience, and identify some probable underlying causes.

  • Swelling. A swollen knee is common with a number of different knee problems. If the swelling is immediate, and follows an injury, it could be the result of a severe injury to an internal joint structure, and should be seen by a physician right away. When the swelling develops gradually in the hours or days following an injury, the damage is usually less severe. The cause could be a torn meniscus or a ligament sprain. If the swelling occurs without a preceding injury, the most common cause is osteoarthritis. Other less common causes of swelling include gout, inflammatory arthritis, or a joint infection.
  • Limited mobility. Arthritis is the most common cause of limited knee mobility. If knee motion becomes restricted following an injury, the probable cause is injury-related swelling, or a torn structure in the knee.
  • Instability. Your knee joint is supported by ligaments that connect the shin bone to the thigh bone. When these ligaments are stretched or torn, your knee may feel as though it is giving way.
  • Popping or clicking sounds. Pops and snapping noises are quite common. As long as the sounds are painless, they are probably not a symptom of a problem. However, if pain accompanies these noises, it’s time to consult your doctor.
  • Crunching, or grinding sounds. These sounds are more serious than popping and clicking, and usually flag a cartilage problem. Damaged cartilage causes a crunching sensation when the knee is bent. Knee arthritis can also cause a crunching or grinding sensation.
  • Locking. If you cannot bend or straighten your knee, there could be something physically blocking knee motion—like a torn meniscus, or pain could be preventing ease of movement. Your doctor might use a numbing medication to determine the cause. Once the knee is numb, you’ll be able to move your knee if pain caused the locking. If a structure is preventing movement, the numbing medication won’t make you any more mobile.

Whenever a knee problem is accompanied by persistent pain or affects your day-to-day activities, your physician should evaluate it.

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