Knee Clicking When Walking: Causes & Remedies

Are you experiencing a clicking sensation in your knees while walking? In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the causes of knee clicking, delve into the anatomy of the knee joint, discuss symptoms and diagnosis, as well as treatment and prevention options to help you understand and manage this common issue.

Causes of Knee Clicking

One common cause of knee clicking when walking is the natural movement of our body’s tendons and ligaments. As we walk, these fibrous structures glide over the joint surfaces, and sometimes they might slightly catch or snap, producing a subtle clicking or popping sound. This is generally painless and not a cause for concern. Similarly, gas bubbles that form and dissipate within the knee joint’s synovial fluid can also lead to clicking sounds. Once again, this is typically harmless and not indicative of any underlying issue.

In some cases, however, knee clicking can be a symptom of an underlying injury or medical condition. For instance, torn or damaged cartilage within the knee joint can cause a clicking sound as the joint moves during walking. Such damage might result from a sudden impact (like a sports injury) or gradual wear and tear over time (as seen in osteoarthritis). Additionally, patellofemoral pain syndrome, which occurs when the kneecap doesn’t track properly over the femur, can lead to knee clicking. This is often attributed to muscular imbalances or structural abnormalities, and might be accompanied by pain, stiffness, and swelling.

One potential cause of knee clicking when walking is a meniscal tear. The menisci are crescent-shaped structures that help cushion and stabilize the knee joint. A meniscal tear can result from a sudden twisting motion or from long-term wear and tear. In such cases, the clicking sound might be accompanied by pain, swelling, and limited range of motion in the joint. Understanding the anatomy of the knee joint is essential for identifying the root cause of knee issues, and seeking prompt evaluation and treatment from a healthcare professional is necessary to prevent further damage and improve overall joint health.

The image shows a person walking with a red circle around their knee indicating the location of the sound. A thought bubble shows a knee joint with structures gliding over the joint surfaces.

Anatomy of the Knee Joint

The knee joint is a complex structure responsible for the connection of the femur (thigh bone) to the tibia (shin bone) and the fibula (smaller, parallel bone to the tibia). Additionally, the patella (knee cap) resides at the front of the knee joint, providing protection and aiding in the overall function of the joint. Knowing the key components of the knee’s anatomy such as bones, cartilage, and ligaments can help to better understand the clicking sensation that may occur during walking. If you experience persistent knee clicking or associated pain, consult a healthcare professional for a proper evaluation and personalized treatment plan.

The knee joint is synovial, which means it’s cushioned and protected by not only layers of cartilage but also synovial fluid and a joint capsule. Two types of cartilage are found within the knee joint – articular cartilage and fibrocartilage. Articular cartilage, found on the surfaces of the femur, tibia, and patella, is responsible for the smooth gliding and shock absorption within the joint. Fibrocartilage, comprising the menisci, is primarily responsible for shock absorption between the femur and tibia. In terms of ligaments, the knee is stabilized by four primary ligaments: the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), medial collateral ligament (MCL), and lateral collateral ligament (LCL).

While walking, the knee joint operates through the synchronized collaboration of bones, cartilage, and ligaments, ensuring proper alignment and function. However, disruptions in the knee joint’s delicate balance can sometimes lead to sensations like clicking. Possible reasons for this clicking sensation can range from misalignment or damage to the articular cartilage to strained ligaments or tendons or even the existence of loose bodies within the joint. It’s crucial to note that knee clicking doesn’t always point towards an issue or injury; in some instances, it could merely be a natural occurrence during joint movement. Nevertheless, if knee clicking is coupled with pain, discomfort, or instability, it is advisable to consult a qualified professional for further evaluation.

A picture showing the different bones, cartilage, and ligaments that make up the knee joint.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

In some cases, knee clicking when walking may also present additional symptoms that could signify a problem with the knee joint. Such symptoms can involve pain, swelling, stiffness, instability, or a sensation that the knee may give out while walking or standing. Furthermore, an individual might experience limited mobility or a decline in strength in the affected leg. It’s essential to be attentive to these accompanying symptoms and track their progression. Doing so can help identify potential underlying issues that may necessitate medical attention.

To diagnose the cause of knee clicking, a healthcare professional will typically begin with a thorough medical history and physical examination. They may assess factors such as the patient’s activity level, previous injuries, and any coexisting medical conditions. The physician may also perform a series of specific tests or movements to help pinpoint the source of the clicking sound and determine whether it is related to a mechanical or anatomical issue in the knee. Additional imaging studies, such as X-rays or MRIs, may be ordered to provide a more detailed view of the knee joint and surrounding structures if the initial assessment doesn’t provide a clear diagnosis.

In some cases, conservative treatments like icing, rest, or over-the-counter pain medications may be enough to effectively manage knee clicking symptoms. However, it’s crucial to seek professional medical advice if the knee clicking is accompanied by severe pain, significant swelling, or if it hinders daily activities. A prompt evaluation and treatment can help prevent further damage to the knee joint and surrounding structures, ultimately enhancing overall mobility and reducing the risk of long-term complications. Furthermore, if the symptoms worsen or fail to improve with conservative treatments, further medical intervention may be necessary to address the root cause of the clicking sound and its accompanying symptoms.

This image shows a person pointing to their knee, indicating the location of the clicking sound they are experiencing while walking.

Treatment and Prevention

Treatment options for knee clicking while walking can differ based on the root cause of the issue. Lifestyle changes are typically recommended first, as they can substantially impact knee health. These changes may include weight loss to alleviate stress on the knee joint, wearing suitable footwear to provide better support and cushioning, and incorporating low-impact activities such as swimming or cycling to maintain fitness without causing too much stress on the knees. Moreover, making an effort to practice proper walking and running techniques can aid in reducing knee clicking.

Exercises targeting the muscles surrounding the knee can also help alleviate knee clicking. Strengthening exercises for the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calf muscles can improve joint stability and reduce stress on the knee. Furthermore, stretching exercises can promote flexibility and decrease the risk of further injury. It may be beneficial to consult with a physical therapist who can recommend a personalized exercise program to address specific issues leading to knee clicking. If more conservative treatments are not successful, medical interventions might be necessary. These could include corticosteroid injections to reduce inflammation, hyaluronic acid injections to improve joint lubrication, or surgical procedures such as arthroscopy in case of a torn meniscus or other joint abnormalities.

In some cases, knee clicking may be caused by an imbalance in the muscles surrounding the knee, which can lead to improper tracking of the kneecap. In these situations, the focus should be on strengthening weak muscles, such as the hip flexors and abductors, to restore balance and promote normal knee function. Incorporating balance and stability exercises can also help improve overall joint function and reduce knee clicking.

An x-ray image of a healthy knee joint and the muscles surrounding it.

When to See a Doctor

By addressing the root cause of knee clicking and implementing appropriate treatment and prevention strategies, adults can work towards managing their symptoms and preventing further damage to their knees. It is important to note that experiencing knee clicking when walking can be a cause for concern, especially if it is accompanied by pain, swelling, or limitations in mobility. While occasional clicking sounds are not always a cause for alarm, there are certain red flags that warrant a visit to a healthcare professional. Paying attention to these warning signs is crucial to prevent further complications and ensure proper diagnosis and treatment.

Persistent pain, swelling, or instability in the knee joint are some of the red flags that you should not ignore. Other symptoms to watch out for include locking or catching of the knee, inability to bear weight or walk comfortably, or persistent discomfort even after trying conservative measures such as rest, ice, and over-the-counter pain relievers. In addition, if there is a significant decrease in the range of motion of the knee or if the clicking sound is a result of a traumatic event, such as a sports injury or accident, it is essential to consult a doctor to evaluate the severity of the problem.

Delaying treatment for serious knee issues can have lasting consequences, including chronic pain, functional limitations, or even the development of osteoarthritis. As the condition worsens, more invasive and costly medical interventions may be necessary. Therefore, seeking timely medical attention is vital in order to ensure accurate diagnosis, appropriate treatment, and the best possible chance at recovery. A healthcare professional can provide valuable guidance on managing knee clicking issues and can help you maintain an active and pain-free lifestyle.

Sometimes when you walk, your knee makes a clicking sound. But if your knee also hurts, is swollen, or can't move as well, then you should see a doctor.

With a better understanding of knee clicking causes, the complex knee joint anatomy, and treatment options, you can take the necessary steps to maintain your joint health. Remember to monitor your symptoms, adhere to recommended lifestyle changes and exercises, and seek professional medical advice when necessary. By taking action, you can minimize the impact of knee clicking and continue enjoying a healthy, active lifestyle.