Have you ever been just walking or standing up and felt a sudden sharp pain in your knee? Ouch! You are not alone.
Thankfully, the sharp knee pain can be stopped when you understand the reason why. In this article, I’ll help you discover what may be causing your own sharp knee pain and teach you a few helpful tips to stop it.
Written by: Coach Todd
No you aren’t “just getting old,” there are many causes of the various types of pain in the knee. They often fall into these two categories:
Joint-Related Sharp Knee Pain
The knee joins the thigh bone (femur) to the shin bone (tibia). The kneecap (patella) and surrounding tendons and ligaments help to secure those bones together to form your knee joint.
If you have more anatomy quotations, check out Knee Pain 101 to learn about all the structures in your knee joint.
Ok, this isn’t fun, but think about the sharp pain you experience. Can you pin-point the spot on your knee?
Does your pain tend to stay in one area? This is a sign of injury, inflammation, or damage to the joint itself.
Nerve-Related Sharp Knee Pain
If your sharp knee pain is accompanied by a shooting pain that travels through the leg it indicates a neural problem. It can either be stemming from a nerve in the knee itself or from a nerve in the lower back that connects to the knee.
Nerves act like electrical cables running all over the body. They start in the brain and travel down the spine. They then branch out to every part of your body.
Think of your nerves like roads. Some are big. Others are small. But they all do the same thing – carry information such as sensations (pressure, pain, temperature), commands (bend knee, straighten knee), and other information needed to run your body.
If a nerve gets pinched somewhere, it can cause sharp shooting pain and may be the cause of the sharp pain in your knee.
Causes of Sharp Knee Pain & How to Fix it
For ease, we’re going to break this down into the common situations you experience sharp knee pain. Think back on the activities you perform that already have you wincing because you expect sharp knee pain.
Sharp Knee Pain When Starting to Walk
If your knee pain is worse when you first start walking and then eases, it is likely due to arthritis.
While you may have noticed that your knee pain does get better the more you move, sometimes it can be hard to feel motivated to get past those first painful steps.
You may even feel like walking will only aggravate the problem, however, walking can actually help. Your knee is nourished by synovial fluid. Walking helps keep that fluid fresh and the more you walk the more that fluid can help with arthritis pain.
TIPS TO AVOID PAIN: before battling through the pain on the onset of walking, be sure that you incorporate other knee-specific exercises and make sure you have the right shoes. Check out these tips to learn how to prevent sharp knee pain when walking from arthritis.
Sharp Knee Pain with Prolonged Walking
If your knee pain occurs after walking for a prolonged period of time, it is likely a neural issue.
The spine houses thousands of tiny nerves that travel down towards the knee. When one or more of these are pinched from any dysfunction or disease of the lower back, it can signal pain to shoot down the leg and into the knee.
TIPS TO AVOID PAIN: stretch it out! By placing the right stretch on your back, you can relieve direct nerve pressure and stress. These lower back stretches are simple, and can be done anywhere there’s a chair.
Sharp Knee Pain When Standing or Walking Upright
If, when you stand up tall, that sharp, shooting knee pain occurs, it is likely spinal stenosis.
Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the space between each vertebra and occurs most often in the lower back and the neck. Commonly caused by osteoarthritis, stenosis can put pressure on the nerves that travel through the spine, just like mentioned above.
TIPS TO AVOID PAIN: exercises like strengthening the muscles surrounding the spine and focusing on “flexion-based” mobility will decrease the amount of pressure on the nerves that travel down to the leg. Try these lumbar flexion exercises to create some space between your spine and your nerves.
Sharp Knee Pain When Squatting
If your knee pain gets worse when bending during squatting, it is likely a problem within the knee joint itself, such as arthritis or a cartilage tear.
It also needs to be noted that weakness in the hips or ankles can also cause your sharp knee pain from arthritis to get worse. That’s why it’s important to look at the whole lower body and how it is functioning when you are bending your knee.
TIPS TO AVOID PAIN: when we squat well, we live well! Fix these common mistakes made during squatting to address the hip, ankles, and knees to reduce sharp knee pain.
Sharp Knee Pain When Bending Your Back
If your knee pain occurs when reaching down to put your shoes on or any other “back-bending” activity, it is likely due to a problem in your lower back.
The gradual loss of core muscle tissue impacts your ability to keep the spine supported during these types of movements and compensation can occur.
TIPS TO AVOID PAIN: follow a proper exercise routine, focusing on strengthening the transverse abdominis (TVA) to mitigate dysfunction. The TVA is considered the core’s core and helps to stabilize the entire low back and core muscles. When you have a strong core, it surprisingly can improve many lower body aches and pains.
Sharp Knee Pain When Standing Still
If your knee pain gets worse after prolonged stillness but eases with movement, it is likely from arthritis.
That stiff feeling occurs because the joint-hydrating fluid surrounding the knee has grown still because of a lack of movement. This may occur during sleeping, sitting, or standing for extended periods of time.
TIPS TO AVOID PAIN: isometric exercises are extremely low-impact and great for rapidly strengthening muscles, as well as supporting tendon and ligament health. Try incorporating one or two of these isometric exercises when you’ve noticed you’ve had a prolonged period of no movement. They are great when performed before getting out of bed in the morning, or before you get up from sitting.
Sharp Knee Pain When Twisting or Kicking
This type of pain can be sudden but is likely a mechanical problem in the knee joint itself. It may be a cartilage tear, ACL/ligament involvement, or loose tissue in the joint.
This pain often stems from — and leads to — a weakness in the surrounding muscles and imbalances between the leg strength.
TIPS TO AVOID PAIN: focus on strengthening the muscles surrounding the knee joint. This simple 4-part exercise routine can be done by your bedside to jump-start your day with strong, healthy joints!
Sharp Knee Pain When Kneeling Down
Do you completely avoid kneeling because of the sharp pain accompanied? This pain most likely occurs because something is being squashed.
This could be an inflamed bursa, known as knee bursitis, or loose tissue in the knee. There is often obvious visual swelling with both of these ailments.
TIPS TO AVOID PAIN: first and foremost, find a way to reduce the swelling through rest, ice, compression, or elevation. Once accomplished, begin a strengthening routine, such as using a stationary bike to build the muscle surrounding the knee without inflaming the bursa or knee joint again.
Sharp Knee Pain When Taking the Stairs
There are two directions/causes of this type of sharp knee pain.
When traveling up the stairs, this indicates a problem within the knee’s tibiofemoral joint. When traveling downstairs, the problem most likely stems from the knee cap.
Both of these are considered mechanical problems within the knee. Either way, the solution actually remains the same!
TIPS TO AVOID PAIN: if your knees aren’t aligned with the rest of your body, it can aggravate your knees causing the sharp pain with stairs. Start with these 3 simple stretches to realign your knees and relieve discomfort.
Sharp Knee Pain When Running
Knee pain when running tends to be more of an aching, throbbing type pain rather than sharp pain. This is fairly rare, indicating that something is getting squashed in the joint.
Whether gravity is playing devil’s advocate or your joints simply can’t handle the high-impact movements anymore, pain when running should not be pushed through.
TIPS TO AVOID PAIN: exercising in the water is a great way to stay fit and active while unloading the joint of stress. You can jog in the water or try incorporating these 10 senior-friendly pool exercises during your next swim session to help strengthen the knee without pain.
Sharp Knee Pain On the Inside of the Leg
Sharp knee pain on the inner side of the leg is usually caused by damage to the medial collateral ligament (MCL) or the medial meniscus.
These ligaments help to hold the knee joint together but when they are damaged the knee becomes unstable.
TIPS TO AVOID PAIN: believe it or not, the best way to improve stability in the knee after an MCL injury is to strengthen the hip. Try these 5 hip stability exercises to reduce pain, prevent further injury, and decrease your chances of needing surgery.
Sharp Knee Pain When Sitting Down
Experiencing sharp, shooting knee pain at rest, such as sitting for more than 20-30 minutes, is a common feature of arthritis.
While sitting for brief periods of time can be beneficial to our health and stress recovery, too much can flare-up arthritic pain in your knees.
TIPS TO AVOID PAIN: switch up your routine to get up more often by following these 3 tips to reduce the harmful effects of sitting. From setting a timer for movement to seated chair exercises, these tips are sure to keep your knee pain at bay.
Severe Sharp Knee Pain
When unrelenting knee pain continues, it usually indicates a fracture of one of the knee bones. If this is the case, schedule an appointment to see a doctor immediately. Do not try to self-treat a fracture.
Whether mechanical or neural, joint pain within the knee can be addressed when done properly.
Be mindful when trying new exercises and stretches to make sure they’re the right fit for your specific situation. If any exercise increases pain, pause the exercise. If sharp knee pain continues, reach out to your primary care physician.
You never want to stop moving because you’re “just getting old.” There is so much we can do to help with knee pain so that you can stay active at any age.