Understanding Sharp Pain in Knee That Comes and Goes

Navigating through the day-to-day can become a grueling task when subjected to bouts of sharp knee pain that strike at unpredictable intervals. A myriad of potential factors, from arthritis to nerve irritation, can be the culprits behind these intrusive instances of agony. Knowledge is power, and having a comprehensive understanding of the possible causes of knee pain, as well as how they are categorized and treated, can be the key to managing, mitigating, or even eliminating this burden from your life. This write-up will delve deeply into the common causes of sharp, intermittent knee pain, outline the different types of knee pain identified by medical experts, and familiarize you with the vast array of treatments currently available.

Causes of Sharp Knee Pain


Arthritis is a common cause of sharp intermittent knee pain. Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis can affect the knees. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition which breaks down the cartilage within the knee, causing bones to rub against each other. Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disease, which leads to inflammation and swelling in the knee joints. Symptoms typical to arthritis can include:

  • Knee pain that fluctuates, typically getting worse after activity or prolonged periods of rest
  • Swelling around the knee
  • Redness and warmth in the knee area
  • Difficulty in bending and flexing the knee

Meniscus Tear

The meniscus is a C-shaped piece of cartilage in your knee which acts as a cushion between your thighbone and shinbone. A meniscus tear is usually caused by a sudden twist or rotation of your knee, often when the foot is planted and the knee is bent. These tears can result in sharp, sudden pain, especially when the knee is twisted or rotated. Typical symptoms of a meniscus tear include:

  • Sharp, intermittent pain in the knee
  • Swelling or stiffness in the knee
  • Feelings of the knee locking or catching during movement
  • Difficulty straightening the knee fully

Patellofemoral Joint Pain

The patellofemoral joint is the part of the knee where the thighbone (femur) meets the kneecap (patella). Patellofemoral joint pain is often caused by physical activities that put a lot of pressure on the knees, such as climbing stairs, squatting, and running downhill. Common symptoms of this type of knee pain include:

  • Pain in the front of your knee, around your kneecap
  • Knee pain that gets worse with activity and improves with rest
  • Pain when you bend the knee, such as when you kneel, squat or ascend/descend stairs
  • A popping or grinding sensation in the knee

Loose Body

Loose bodies in the knee joint are small loose fragments of cartilage or bone that move around the joint space. They can cause sharp and sudden knee pain that comes and goes depending on the position of the knee and the location of the loose body. Common symptoms of a loose body in the knee can include:

  • Intermittent locking or catching sensation in the knee joint
  • Sharp pain in the knee that comes and goes
  • Limited range of motion in the knee

Hoffa’s Fat Pad Impingement

The fat pad in your knee is a cushioning layer of fat that sits beneath the patella, protecting it and the joint capsule from impact. Hoffa’s fat pad impingement is an irritation or inflammation of this fat pad, which can be caused by a direct blow, hyperextension of the knee, or excessive pressure over time. Typical symptoms may include:

  • Pain in the front of the knee, just below the patella
  • Swelling at the bottom of the knee joint
  • Increased pain with fully straightening or actively bending the knee

Knee Nerve Irritation

The sharp, occasional knee pain could be due to the aggravation or pinching of the local nerves. This may result from an unexpected injury, pressure exerted by an inflamed knee structure, or due to an overall health condition like diabetes. Knee nerve irritation symptoms can be characterized by:

  • A sudden sharp or searing pain around the knee area
  • Loss of feeling or an unusual ‘pins and needles’ sensation in the knee or lower leg
  • Lower leg muscular power deficiency.

Illustration depicting various types of knee pain

Types of Knee Pain

Mechanical Knee Pain

Another cause of the intermittent sharp pain in your knee could be due to what is known as mechanical knee pain. Often the result of wear and tear to the knee’s internal components such as the ligaments, bones, and cartilage, this type of pain acts up when the knee is moved but might reduce or disappear when at rest.

Two frequent contributors to mechanical knee pain are meniscus tears and knee osteoarthritis.

Meniscus Tears

A meniscus tear describes the damage to the cushioning cartilage that lies between the femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone). An incorrect movement while walking or even a simple misstep can potentially trigger such injury. However, it’s more frequently an issue faced by athletes who participate in sports where they must undertake sudden actions – like soccer or football. A meniscus tear can make itself known with:

  • An abrupt, sharp knee pain
  • Knee-area swelling or stiffness
  • Restricted leg movement, making it hard to bend or straighten the leg
  • The feeling that the knee has ‘locked’ and won’t freely move

Knee Osteoarthritis

Knee osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that generally affects older people due to age-related wear and tear. Nonetheless, it can also occur in younger people following a knee injury. The breakdown of cartilage causes the bones to rub against each other, leading to pain and swelling. People with knee osteoarthritis may experience:

  • Intermittent sharp pains in the knee
  • Swelling and stiffness around the knee
  • Difficulty in kneeling, climbing, or descending stairs
  • Noises in the knee during movement such as cracking and popping

Inflammatory Pain

Inflammatory knee pain is typically a result of conditions that cause inflammation in the knee joint, leading to pain, swelling, or stiffness. These conditions can include gout, rheumatoid arthritis, and bursitis.


Gout is a type of inflammatory arthritis that can cause severe acute pain, often starting in the big toe and sometimes in the knee. During a gout attack, uric acid crystals accumulate in the joint, resulting in inflammation. Patients with gout may experience:

  • Severe sharp pain in the knee
  • Redness, swelling, and warmth around the joint
  • Pain that comes and goes, with episodes lasting from a few hours to a few weeks.

Rheumatoid Arthritis & Knee Pain

One possible cause of recurring knee pain, characterized by periods of worsening symptoms (flares) and improving symptoms (remission), could be Rheumatoid arthritis. This autoimmune disease leads to the chronic inflammation of joints. Besides knee discomfort, people suffering from this condition may also experience:

  • Morning pain and stiffness lasting more than one hour
  • Perpetual tiredness, fever, and weight loss
  • The formation of rheumatoid nodules under the skin

Illustration of knee pain and different causes

Treating Sharp, Intermittent Knee Pain

Dealing with Intermittent Knee Pain

To understand the cause behind the sharp, repeated knee pain you are experiencing, it’s pivotal to consider a multitude of factors. Issues ranging from injuries, mechanical problems, different types of arthritis, including Rheumatoid arthritis, to other health conditions can be the root cause. This unpredictable knee pain can greatly limit your mobility and negatively impact your life. Therefore, it’s essential to get an early diagnosis and treatment while also considering your lifestyle habits and activities that may contribute to this pain.

Treatment Options for Sharp, Intermittent Knee Pain

Medications and Rest

Both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications can offer relief from knee pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and aspirin can help manage inflammation and pain, while stronger prescription drugs can address severe pain. Rest is essential in healing a knee injury or relieving pain. Avoiding activities that exacerbate the pain and implementing regular periods of rest can aid in recovery.

Physical Therapy

Physiotherapy, also known as physical therapy, may be recommended for individuals with knee pain. Therapists guide patients through exercises designed to strengthen the muscles around the knee joint to improve stability. This treatment may include stretching, strengthening, balance, aerobic, and flexibility exercises. Physiotherapy can often help reduce the frequency and intensity of the knee pain over time.


For severe cases where less invasive methods do not provide adequate relief, surgical options may be considered. Arthroscopy, a procedure that uses a small camera to view inside the knee joint, can identify and deal with a variety of knee injuries. Other surgical procedures include a partial or total knee replacement.

Preventive Tips and Lifestyle Factors

Routine exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can benefit overall knee health. Overweight individuals often experience more knee pain because of the increased pressure on the knee joint. Regular exercise not only helps with weight regulation, but it also strengthens muscles, which can prevent injury.

Good posture, avoiding unnecessary strain, and using the right technique during physical activities can also reduce knee pain.

Refraining from smoking and limiting alcohol intake can prevent conditions like osteoporosis, which can cause knee pain.

Inflammatory vs Non-Inflammatory Knee Pain Treatments

Inflammatory knee pain is often characterized by long-lasting pain that is not typically associated with an injury, and may be due to conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Treatment can involve medications like corticosteroids, immunosuppressants, and, in severe cases, surgery.

Non-inflammatory knee pain, meanwhile, is often related to age, overuse, or injury. Treatment can vary largely based on the cause. For example, pain resulting from an injury can often be managed with rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) and pain medication, while knee pain due to overuse may be managed through a combination of physiotherapy and lifestyle changes.

Remember, it’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional to receive an accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment plan for knee pain. They will consider the specific symptoms, lifestyle, activity level, and overall health condition to provide the best advice.

Image of a person holding their knee, indicating knee pain.

Owning a nuanced understanding of your knee pain culminates in effective management and, hopefully, a swifter recovery. Whether it stems from sporadic episodes of arthritis, an unnoticed meniscus tear, or any other potential cause, knowing your pain can greatly aid in finding the most suitable treatment plan. By understanding the various types of knee pain and how they are treated, from the utilization of medications or rest, up to more intensive courses of action like physiotherapy and surgery, you may importantly expedite your path to relief. Furthermore, being privy to preventive measures and ways to potentially mitigate the impact of knee pain on your daily life equips you with the tools needed to maintain a high quality of life, even when faced with this challenge.