Why Do My Knees Make Noise?

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Translating those knee snaps, crackles, and pops is simpler than it sounds.

The human body is a spectacular creation and one that isn’t necessarily quiet. Beyond the sounds we can make with our voices, there is a cacophony of other “noises” that can emanate from us. Although not every sound we make is joyful, some can be alarming or concerning, depending on their origin. Among the nosiest of the joints in our bodies are the knees. The knees can make popping, crinkling, or snapping sounds for a variety of reasons. It’s important to know when those sounds are normal and when they warrant medical attention.

When it comes to painless popping or snapping sounds arising from the knee, these can occur from the negative pressure. Though it may sound cringeworthy, negative pressure is just gas bubbles formed around the knee joint, which are painlessly “popped” as the knee is bent and flexed. Other possible causes of painless knee sounds can be tendons snapping when the knee joint moves or softening of the cartilage surrounding the knee (prevalent under the kneecap), which creates a popping noise as the knee bends or straightens.

As I explained above, painless sounds arising from the knee are usually normal. But if those sounds are accompanied by knee pain, you should consult a doctor as soon as possible. It is important to understand that pain-related knee sounds aren’t always the result of a recent or particularly traumatic knee injury event. Many knee injuries occur over time from repetitive use. In addition, if the sound and pain in the knee also feature a feeling that the knee is locking or “giving out,” these too are reasons to immediately consult a doctor. Painful popping sounds can indicate damage or wearing of the knee cartilage, and painful locking or instability in the knee can indicate a torn meniscus or a loose body in the knee that is catching in the joint as you try to move it.

A variety of treatments are available for painful, noisy knees. After an evaluation by a trained medical provider and depending on the root cause of the painful noises, some knee concerns can respond well to non-invasive treatments such as rest, ice, and avoiding the activity that causes the pain. Physical therapy may also aid in strengthening the muscles surrounding the knee joint, thereby lightening the direct load on the knee, which can help alleviate the pain. In some cases, steroid, platelet rich plasma (PRP), or hyaluronic acid injections into the knee can help to lubricate the joint and relieve pain temporarily. However, when the knee mechanics are malfunctioning, and the painful sounds are accompanied by locking or catching, this can be due to a meniscus or cartilage tear that might require surgery to repair the damage.

The most obvious and effective way to maintain healthy knees is to avoid injuring them in the first place. Because damage to the knees can occur over time, it might seem like the things you’re doing today don’t have an impact on knee health, but many of them do! For example, a focus on maintaining a healthy body weight for your height throughout your lifetime is one of the most significant ways to maintain knee health across the lifespan. Your knees experience an additional four pounds of joint reactive force for each extra pound of body weight over the threshold of what they were typically designed to carry. So, a focus on maintaining a healthy weight can do wonders for the health of your knees now and later in life.

Additionally, maintaining good muscle tone and strength in the leg muscles surrounding the knee is crucial for knee health. These muscles, including the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps, help protect the knee joint by providing a cushioning, controlling, and load distribution effect for your daily leg movements. Cycling is one great exercise to help strengthen knee-supporting muscles because it is generally lower-impact than other exercises like running.

If you are someone who has noisy knees that aren’t painful, continue to do the healthy things that can keep them pain-free (if not noise-free) as you age. But if those squeaky knees are also delivering a dose of pain, listen closely, because those alarm bells are trying to tell you it’s time to visit a doctor.

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