Understanding Knee Clicks on Stairs: Causes & Remedies

The human knee, an intricate assembly of muscles, ligaments, cartilages and bones, plays a monumental role in our daily movement and physical activities. This complicated joint, however, might sometimes produce unusual sounds such as clicks while ascending or descending stairs, leading to many individuals seeking answers and information. From the rudiments of knee anatomy to the common reasons that contribute to this phenomenon, this composition aims to dispel any uncertainties and stimulate your understanding about knee clicks. It further provides valuable insight regarding the diagnosis, treatment plans, and when to seek professional medical assistance.

Anatomy of the Knee

Understanding the Anatomy of the Knee

As the largest joint in the body, the knee is a complex structure made up of several components, each with its unique role. This complexity leaves the knee susceptible to various forms of wear, tear, and injury, which can potentially result in a clicking sound when climbing stairs.

Bones of the Knee

The knee is a hinge joint where three important bones in the leg meet. These bones include the femur (thighbone), tibia (shinbone), and patella (kneecap), each providing support and mobility to the joint.

Ligaments and Tendons

There are four main ligaments in the knee that connect these bones and keep them in place. They are the anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments on the inside of the knee and the medial and lateral collateral ligaments on the sides of the knee. Additionally, the tendons in the knee attach muscles to the bones, allowing movement of the joint.


The knee features two types of cartilage, fibrocartilage (menisci) and hyaline cartilage. The menisci are two horse-shoe shaped discs that act as shock absorbers between the tibia and femur. Hyaline cartilage (articular cartilage) covers the ends of these bones, providing a smooth, slippery surface that reduces friction during motion.


Four main muscle groups are significant to the function of the knee, including the quadriceps muscles on the front of the thigh, the hamstrings at the back of the thigh, the hip abductor muscles on the outer thigh, and the calf muscles.

Natural Causes

Some level of clicking or cracking noise in the knee can be completely normal. This typically occurs when gas bubbles within the joint fluid burst, an event known as cavitation.

Injury or Tissue Damage

Injuries to the ligaments, tendons, or menisci can cause knee clicking. This may also result from damage or wear-and-tear to the cartilage, which leads to rough surfaces and increased friction.

Overuse and Aging

Increased age and overuse of the knee can result in wear and tear of the components of the joint, causing clicking sounds.

Chondromalacia Patella

This condition, also known as runner’s knee, involves the softening and breakdown of the cartilage on the underside of the patella, leading to pain and potential clicking.


Knee osteoarthritis, a degenerative condition, involves the wear and tear of the hyaline cartilage. This condition often leads to a crackling or grinding noise during knee bending, such as climbing stairs.

An Introduction to Patellar Tracking Disorder

One common cause of knee clicking when climbing stairs could be Patellar Tracking Disorder. This is a condition in which the kneecap fails to stay properly aligned with the trochlear groove on the femur during movement. This misalignment often results in occasional knee popping or clicking sounds.

A diagram showing the anatomy of the knee

Common Causes of Knee Clicks

Possible Causes of Knee Clicking on Stairs

Hearing your knee click while climbing stairs can be quite unsettling, however, it’s important to understand that it may not always signal a serious problem. In certain cases, it’s simply a result of harmless natural bodily functions. At the same time, it could also be indicative of potential underlying issues such as arthritis, meniscus tears, runner’s knee, and certain ligament problems. Hence, it’s essential to be aware of these possible causes and seek professional medical advice if needed.

Arthritis and Knee Clicks

One of the primary culprits behind knee clicking sounds is arthritis, particularly osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Both of these conditions degrade the cartilage, which usually facilitates smooth joint motion. As this protective layer wears away, the bones grind together, often resulting in clicking noises during activities that strain the knee, like climbing stairs.

The Role of Meniscus Tears

Your knee joint hosts two menisci – rubbery structures that cushion the area where your thigh bone meets your shinbone. Meniscus tears, however, affect this buffering function. A torn meniscus may cause clicking sounds when you walk up stairs. This clicking is often accompanied by pain, swelling, and a catching or locking sensation in the knee.

Runner’s Knee and Clicking Sounds

“Runner’s knee” is a term broadly used to describe several conditions that cause knee pain, particularly in athletes. This category includes patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS), where the knee cap does not track evenly in its groove, leading to a clicking or popping sound while climbing stairs or performing other knee-bending activities.

Ligament Issues and Knee Clicks

The knee houses several ligaments, including the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and posterior cruciate ligament (PCL). When these are injured, they can cause the knee to pop or click. This is because an injury may cause these ligaments to catch on other structures in the knee, or because the ligament might be damaged and not able to fully support the knee joint.

Understanding Knee Clicks

While a clicking noise in the knee might seem alarming, it’s essential to realize that it usually isn’t an urgent issue. Generally, you only need to be concerned if the click is accompanied by other symptoms like pain, stiffness, or swelling. If any of these symptoms are present, it’s advisable to consult a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and treatment.

An image of a person grabbing their knee in pain, emphasizing the importance of taking care of knee issues

Diagnosis & Treatment

Exploring Causes: What Makes Knees Click on Stairs?

The clicking noise in knees when climbing stairs isn’t usually due to one thing but could be triggered by a range of factors. It could be a minor issue or indicative of something a bit more complicated.

One of the usual culprits is Patellofemoral pain syndrome, often seen in individuals whose kneecap isn’t perfectly aligned. The clicking results from the kneecap moving incorrectly within the thigh bone’s groove, thereby creating friction.

The second common cause of knee clicks is osteoarthritis, or degenerative arthritis. This condition happens when the cartilage in the knee joint begins to wear and tear. The clicking sound, in this case, comes from the rough and thinning cartilage within the joint.

Physical injuries to the meniscus, ligaments, or tendons could also lead to clicking knees, especially in those involved in high-impact sports or people who have had a severe knee injury in the past.

Also, Runner’s knee, a condition caused by overuse, direct blow, or weakened muscles, can lead to a clicking sound.

Determining the cause of knee clicks usually begins with a thorough medical history and a complete physical check-up. Generally, this involves techniques to trigger the click, check the range of motion, and pinpoint painful or tender areas.

If a physical examination doesn’t provide enough information, other diagnostic tools might be utilized. This could be X-rays, which provide skeletal pictures to rule out fractures or arthritis, MRI scans (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to get a detailed look at soft tissues like ligaments, tendons, and cartilage, and an ultrasound for a real-time view of the knee’s movement.

Treatment: Managing Knee Clicks

Once a diagnosis has been made, treatment plans are tailored to the specific cause and severity of the knee clicking.

For patellofemoral pain syndrome, physiotherapy to help realign the kneecap is usually recommended. This could involve exercises for thigh muscles, specifically, the quadriceps, to improve strength and flexibility.

For osteoarthritis, there may be several components to the treatment. Pain killers and anti-inflammatory medications are often recommended to manage discomfort. In moderate to severe cases, corticosteroid injections may be needed to reduce inflammation.

Treatment for meniscus injuries, ligament injuries, and tendon injuries, may include rest, physical therapy, medications, and occasionally, surgery.

Meanwhile, runner’s knee often responds positively to rest, ice, compression, and elevation. In addition, strengthening and stretching exercises may also be beneficial.

Prevention: Dodge the Knee Clicks

Regardless of what is causing the issue, there are various general preventive measures you can adopt to sidestep the annoyance of knee clicking while climbing stairs. Exercises aimed at strengthening your quadriceps, hamstrings, and calf muscles can render important support to your knee joint and fend off injuries. Coupled with this, getting involved in low-impact activities such as swimming and bike riding can be immensely beneficial. Remember, it’s crucial to warm up before starting any exercise and cooldown once done. Additionally, maintain a healthy weight to minimize strain on your knees.

Remember, we’re all unique, and so are our health situations. In case you’re experiencing persistent knee clicking or any discomfort, always consult with a healthcare provider for a diagnosis and treatment plan specifically tailored for your situation.

knee joint image showing cartilage wear and tear

When to Seek Medical Attention

Deciphering Knee Clicks: An Ordinary Concern

You might have noticed a click, pop, or cracking sound coming from your knees while climbing a stair, a phenomenon scientifically known as crepitus. Often, these sounds are harmless and are typically the product of natural movement and minor adjustments of your tendons and ligaments. Sometimes, a feeling of popping or crunching under your skin may accompany the sounds – this is usually a part of normal body movement and doesn’t signal anything worrisome.

Nevertheless, if these clicks are accompanied by pain or swelling, they might signal a more serious underlying issue in the knee region, ranging from minor sprains, injuries to chronic conditions like arthritis or tears in the meniscus, all of which require prompt attention from a healthcare professional.

When to Seek Medical Attention: Don’t Ignore These Signs

While normal clicking and popping of the knees is usually innocuous, there are instances when you should not ignore these signs and seek immediate medical attention.

The standout factor that differentiates harmless knee clicks from potentially harmful ones is the presence of pain. Knee clicks coupled with pain, especially when walking up the stairs, can be a sign of conditions like arthritis or a meniscus tear.

These conditions may also present with additional symptoms such as swelling, a sensation of the knee giving way, instability when walking or standing, or decreased range of motion in the knee. If the pain prevents you from carrying out your normal daily activities, or if it persists for several days, it’s time to seek medical counsel. Severe pain should always be evaluated by a healthcare professional, as it may signify a serious injury.

Other signs to watch out for include changes to your knee’s appearance such as visible deformity, increased warmth, redness, or bruising around the area. A sudden increase in the frequency of clicks or sudden occurrence of loud, audible clicks could also warrant a check-up.

Risk Factors: Age and Activity Levels Matter

Certain demographics may be more prone to knee clicks that require medical attention. Your age plays a significant role – the likelihood of degenerative changes such as osteoarthritis increases as you age, and this can lead to painful knee clicking.

Your activity levels also matter. Athletes or those engaged in heavy physical activity are prone to knee injuries, which may result in painful clicking. In such cases, timely medical attention can prevent the condition from worsening and help accelerate recovery.

Finally, your weight can play a role too. Being overweight increases the load on your knees as you climb stairs, which can exacerbate wear and tear. If you’re overweight and experiencing painful knee clicks, consulting a healthcare provider is advisable.

Essentially, while knee clicks are commonplace, listen to your body. If your knees are giving you signals beyond the typical creak or pop – notably pain, swelling, or changes in mobility – it’s time to reach out to a healthcare professional to rule out any serious condition.

Illustration of a knee with arrows showing the typical clicking and popping sounds that occur during movement

Understanding the fundamentals of knee anatomy and the common conditions that create clicking sounds while climbing stairs can contribute significantly to one’s overall wellness. Being cognizant of the tremendous range of possible causes, from arthritis to meniscus tears and ligament problems, empowers people in their self-care journeys. Adopting precautionary measures, correctly identifying potential indications of serious conditions, and knowing when to consult with a healthcare professional are crucial in safeguarding against further joint damage and pain. Education, vigilance, and timely intervention are the keys to keeping your knees healthy and functional.