Got Clicky Knees? Here's Everything You Need to Know and More
We've all been there. You're sinking down into a squat to tie your shoes and, all of a sudden out of nowhere, your knees let loose a loud and possibly even painful click. It can be the most frightening noise you've ever heard if you're not familiar with it, especially considering the human body isn't designed to make the same types of sounds you'd get out of your computer mouse! Stiffness or pain is one thing — sure, you're no spring chicken but you're fairly active, you enjoy keeping fit and playing sports, and you figure you're in some pretty good shape for a man of your age, so why the heck are your knees clicking whenever you bend them?
Well, it's time to take a deep breath: we're here to tell you that there might be nothing wrong with those clicky knees of yours. Nothing seriously wrong, anyway! It turns out that a lot of those breakfast cereal snaps, crackles, and pops you're hearing are perfectly normal for anyone over the age of 30. In fact, even if you're experiencing some minor pain or discomfort when bending your knees enough to hear that click, there are simple and effective ways to relieve some of that pressure and prevent that pain from getting worse. In fact, it's only in the most extreme cases of pain and discomfort that you might have to worry — and even then, there are things that can be done to get your knees back into fighting shape.
But we'll get to all of that. First, let's get into just what's going on with those knees when you bend down and you get that scary clicking sound. Keep calm and read on!
What It Is You're Hearing When Your Knee Goes Click
It turns out there are plenty of things that could be happening whenever you hear or feel that telltale click. The good news is that, for the most part, the source of that sound is likely to be completely benign and afford you no reason to worry whatsoever — especially if those clicky knees don't come with much in the way of pain that you wouldn't expect for someone of your age. So what, exactly, is causing those clicky knees that's causing you so much anxiety? Here are a few possible culprits.
Bubbles in the synovial fluid
The human body is one heck of a complex machine, and it's evolved to move in all sorts of interesting ways both safely and repeatedly. One of the ways many of our joints are protected from repeated movement is through a naturally-occurring lubricant known as synovial fluid, which is produced specifically to protect just about every joint you have from getting damaged by bone or cartilage rubbing up against each other with repeated movement. If you've got a joint, you're likely to have at least a little synovial fluid protecting it.
Sometimes, when you straighten one of these joints, small cavitation bubbles, made of carbon dioxide that was dissolved within your synovial fluid, can form in this fluid. These bubbles will then pop, and often quite loudly, upon moving that joint once more. They're most commonly heard in the hands, which are filled with synovial joints — and that's what you're hearing whenever you crack your knuckles. No, it's not your joints breaking! Besides that, though, since you've got synovial fluid in just about every single one of your joints, including your knees, sometimes those bubbles burst with movement. This is exactly what you're hearing sometimes when you get those oh-so concerning clicking sounds.
Despite how startling the noise, those synovial bubbles are harmless when they occur. There's no real danger to your joints posed by the sound; while you might end up with some minor swelling in your ligaments from repeatedly cracking your knuckles, for example, giving yourself arthritis from doing so is pretty well-established as an old wives' tale. So go on, crack your knuckles as much as you want without fear, and realize that not every click and clack your knees make is going to be something you need to worry about!
Movement of joints, tendons, and ligaments
The next possible culprit causing those clicks and snaps in your knee joint is from the natural movement of the tendons and ligaments in your knee. This, again, turns out to be natural, thanks to the complexity of our skeletal system and how different bones and joints are attached to one another in a system of organic ropes and pulleys that keeps everything working as it should. Not only that, but it's also almost completely benign and decidedly not a cause for concern.
So what's the core mechanic behind this type of movement? Well, while it's obviously a gross oversimplification, your joints aren't that different than the joints on a marionette. They're both controlled by pulling strings, after all! The main difference is that our strings are being pulled by the muscles attached to our skeleton, of course. But just how you can end up tangling the strings on a puppet, our tendons and ligaments can come into contact with parts of the body that they can get temporarily caught on while the joint they're connected to moves.
Thankfully, tendons and ligaments are both tough and elastic. When they do get bent out of shape slightly, they naturally snap back into their accustomed spot. Just like when you pluck at a rubber band, this creates a subtle snapping sound that can translate to a pop or a click. Like with the pop from synovial bubbles, this isn't cause for alarm either, as they don't mean you're injured or that you're developing arthritis or something similar. It's just another normal part of being a very complicated organic marionette that has all its strings on the inside. Isn't human anatomy fun?
When to Be Concerned With That Clicky Knee
We've gone over the good news as far as what's going on with those clicks and pops in your knees: whether it's because your tendons and ligaments are popping back into place or the bubbles in your synovial fluid are bursting with bang, most cases of clicky knees are as harmless as they are painless. Now, though, it's time for the not-so-good news: sometimes that click can be a sign of possible injury. In fact, if you're experiencing pain or swelling whenever you hear or feel a click in your knee, this is honestly something you should be concerned about — and we're not trying to scare you here, but the more pain or swelling you feel, the more you should be concerned!
At this point, there are a number of things that might be causing this painful popping. For one it might be a mechanical problem with your knee joint, which is best described as feeling something catching in your knee while you move the joint. This could be a possible sign that you have a piece of loose cartilage caught in your joint or that your meniscus, the cartilage that provides cushioning for your knee joint, might be torn. The pain from this injury often comes and goes. A painful pop could also be caused by the cartilage being worn down to the point where your bones are causing friction where they rub against each other, which is osteoarthritis. This type of pain is much more persistent; while most of us don't have to worry about arthritis until we get considerably older, sometimes early-onset arthritis does occur.
Next, and this is most common in people who remain active as they age, the condition known as "runner's knee" can also cause painful popping or grinding. This is often a feeling more than a sound, as the source is a roughening on the underside of your kneecap, caused by the kind of repetitive movement that comes with moderate physical activity over time. It's often easier to detect by placing a palm on your knee and then feeling for any unpleasant sensations while you bend the joint. If you feel it, congratulations — your good health habits have come home to roost in moderate joint pain in your knees. Welcome to middle age! Are we having fun yet?
Finally, we come to the real serious injuries — damage to your ligaments. You know when you're in real trouble; if you feel a click and a pop and it's immediately followed by pain and swelling, you might have some serious, go-to-the-doctor type knee injuries. Tears to the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, are a very common sports injury, and dozens of pro sports players younger than you (and in better shape) are benched every season for damage to their ACL. The good news is that you can come back from such an injury almost good as new, just as many of these pro sports players do. But you're not going to be able to do so on your own and certainly not without help. This means you need to get yourself checked out if you're worried you might have a torn ACL or if you've suffered damage to another ligament in your knee.
So You've Identified the Culprit — Now What?
At this point, you can be reasonably sure what's causing your knees to make the old snap-crackle-pop. If you're not experiencing any pain when you do hear that click, you're in the clear — the culprit is probably either synovial bubble popping or your tendons and ligaments rubber banding back into place with movement. There's not much you need to do except pay attention and see if you start feeling pain or experience swelling along with those clicky knees. If that does begin to be the case, though, you're going to have to take different, separate action altogether.
Much of this decision is going to be made depending on the quality of your pain. If your knee's swollen and throbbing to the point where you can barely move, guess what: you're likely headed to the emergency room, as you probably did a number on a ligament. If it's intermittent pain, though, you're likely safe just scheduling a visit to your primary care provider for a quick checkup to see what might be up. From there, depending on what you discover, it's easy to follow the doc's advice as how to keep the pain in your clicky knee from affecting you too badly as it heals. Sometimes you need to stay off it; other times, if it's more serious, you might need surgery and physical therapy to recover.
In the meantime, there are some ways to protect a possibly janky knee from getting worse. Whether you're experiencing painful clicking now or you're simply thinking about the future as you grow older while staying active, it's never too late to start taking steps to protect your knee joint from harm. If your goal is to remain active and healthy for years to come, even as you continue to get a bit older, here are some great ways to keep your joints strong and healthy, even if they do keep clicking whenever you bend down.
Unlocking the Secret to Strong, Healthy (and Clicky) Knees
Whether you're thinking ahead to the future or you know you've got a weak spot due to an old sports injury, there are plenty of excellent ways to both protect your knee joints in order to make them as strong and healthy as possible. Here are some of the best, most proven ways to do so, presented in no particular order. In fact, all of these methods for keeping your knees strong and healthy work best when combined, so feel free to integrate as many of these methods into your own daily routine as you can!
Engage in regular exercise
The best way to strengthen your joints for better overall health is to exercise them regularly. In this case, the best exercises for knee strength are likely to be weight training, which can be done with either physical weights, resistance bands, or even just bodyweight exercises. A good schedule for leg workouts is to exercise those muscles at least twice a week. Always skip at least one day in between to allow your muscles to rest and recover.
Something important to keep in mind: the intensity of your workouts isn't as important as how consistent you are. In fact, too much exercise too quickly can often result in making a knee problem worse, so always start out slowly, especially if you have a history of sports-related knee injuries in the past or if you're still recovering from a recent knee surgery that has you playing catch-up with your health.
You should also ensure that you warm up before you exercise. Start slow and build up instead of just going at it full-tilt, as exercising with cold muscles and joints is a great way to make things worse as well. In the end, if you have any doubts, listen to your doctor or physical therapist. They're the experts as to what types of movements and exercises will act to strengthen your knee and what types might result in making a twitchy one worse.
Maintain your flexibility
Working on your flexibility is one of the most effective ways to keep your joints strong and healthy. Stretching the muscles on the front of your thigh, the quadriceps, and those on the back of your thigh, the hamstrings, will help them move your knee more easily and without risking injury, whether or not they're currently clicking; strong, flexible muscles will help you lift, bend, and move without pain or discomfort in general, after all.
There are two types of stretches you need to consider to work on flexibility, both of which accomplish different goals. The first kind, known as dynamic stretches, involves moving your thigh and leg muscles through their full range of motion. These types of stretches are an important part of any warmup exercises, as they prevent exercise-related injury. Take it slowly and carefully, and make sure you don't overextend yourself — especially if it's been a while since you've been active, such as if you're recovering from an injury that's precluded you from exercising.
You should stretch both before and after exercise — before to warm up and afterward to cool down. Dynamic stretches are best done before any type of exercise or physical therapy, but once you're done with an exercise routine it's best to employ the second type of stretches for flexibility: static stretches. These involve holding a position for around 30 seconds at a time before releasing the hold, and they're perfect for cooling down, helping to prevent muscle cramps and otherwise just relaxing after exerting yourself.
Keep at a healthy weight
Carrying excess weight is a major contributing factor to poor joint health, especially when it comes to your knees. In fact, obesity is highly associated with developing osteoarthritis in your knees at an early age, as all that extra weight means your cartilage is taking a real beating with every step. This wears that cartilage away quicker than it would otherwise — over time, you can end up getting arthritis decades before you'd be expected to.
We know that keeping yourself at a healthy weight isn't always easy, especially as you age. Even staying active might not stave off the development of that dreaded badge of middle age: the spare tire around the gut. You're not a kid anymore; you can't just eat whatever you want and rely on your metabolism to keep you skinny, after all — and that means you gotta be more careful with what you're putting in your body.
Maintaining a healthy weight, especially into middle age, takes more than just regular exercise. You need to ensure your eating habits are going to promote good health as well. Don't think twice about talking to a dietitian or a nutritionist, as they can help set you on the right path towards good-tasting meals that leave you feeling full but don't promote weight gain.
Use the Right Equipment
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it's very important to be using the right equipment to promote healthy knees. This is much more complex than you might think, as you need to keep in mind that knee pain and injury can be made worse without the right kind of support. We're not just talking exercise equipment, either, though that is obviously important — you want to make sure you're using the right type of gear while working out, and that you're using it correctly! Above and beyond that, though, there are some things you should be using every day to help support better knee health, and they don't involve the type of dumbbells you're lifting.
One of the biggest and most effective ways to do this is through better footwear. Your feet are the only part of your body that touches the ground, and every step you take sends shockwaves up your legs and through your joints. Ensure you're wearing well-cushioned shoes that are the right size for your feet, as these will reduce the amount of shock that travels up your leg, minimizing the impact on your knee joint. If you can't find a good pair of shoes in your size, or if you don't have the budget for them, you can rely on orthotic inserts instead. These inserts provide many of the same types of benefits and are often more affordable. You'll also be less likely to experience foot pain and fatigue as an added bonus!
Secondly, and we obviously can't stress this enough, you need to consider using a sports brace for your knee, either on its own or in conjunction with good footwear as well. These braces provide you the perfect support you need while bending and flexing your knee joint, keeping the knee in the right place and position, which both reduces the likelihood of exacerbating an old sports injury and prevents the possibility of a new one cropping up.
Finding the Best Sports Brace for Your Knee
It's almost always a good idea to wear a sports brace for your knee. Whether you've got an old sports injury you don't want coming back, you're concerned about keeping your joint protected as you continue to remain active as you get older, or any other reason under the sun, there are plenty of good reasons to want a little extra support where it's needed. In fact, unless your doctor provides you specific instructions or prescribes you a medical-standard knee brace, you really can't go wrong with a sports brace.
Finding the right one for your needs, though? That can be a little trickier. There are a lot of different types of knee braces out there. The most simple ones are sometimes little more than the types of knee pads you would use for volleyball or other sports. Others do more than simply provide some cushioning but instead offer compression support as well, which helps keep your knee in alignment while bending it, which can be an excellent option for anyone looking to protect their joint function while being active.
Finally, the most advanced knee braces offer active assistance in bending and flexing your knees. These knee braces are excellent for anyone who needs a little extra oomph while bending; instead of protecting the front and sides of the knee, these braces offer extra lifting power at the back of the knee. If you're highly active or have a physically demanding job, these types of assistive braces are often your best bet.
The Final Word on Those Clicky Knees
At this point, it should be pretty clear that having clicky knees isn't immediately something to worry about. If you're just getting some snaps, crackles, and pops from time to time, this is perfectly natural and not anything that necessarily indicates any sort of joint problems brewing in the future. That being said, as we age our body's capabilities can and do change, and paying attention to your joints and the sounds they make becomes more important as we grow older. This is why investigating those clicky knees of yours is always a good thing.
So, no, clicks and pops on their own are not a warning sign of any sort. However, if any of those clicks and pops are accompanied by pain or discomfort, this is another matter entirely. Sometimes this is an old sports injury acting up, which can happen from time to time. At other times, this could be a new injury, brought on by repetitive or accidental stress, that's beginning to show itself. While you should never ignore any joint pain you're experiencing, the type of knee pain and its intensity are going to play a role in what happens next.
Serious injuries to your knee's ligaments and tendons might require surgery and physical therapy. Minor strains, however, can be dealt with much more easily. The key, in almost all situations, is to take steps to improve the health of your knee joint and provide support going forward. This can mean physical therapy, specific exercises, maintaining a healthy weight, and getting the right kind of support in the form of custom orthotics or knee braces.
The key to better joint health is to pay attention and to take appropriate action. Understand what your knee is doing, how it's feeling, and follow through appropriately. That's the best way to keep a clicky knee healthy for years to come.