Clicking Knee: Cause For Concern?

Most people are used to their joints ‘clicking’ or ‘popping’ every now and then. Though often innocuous, like when you crack your knuckles, these sounds can sometimes be indicative of an underlying tendon, cartilage, muscle, or movement concern1 2.

One region that is particularly prone to these is the knee. There are a variety of issues that can afflict this joint, and many result in a painful ‘pop’ when climbing stairs, squatting, or even just walking.

Thankfully, there are a number of effective, non-invasive treatments that can help manage knee discomfort and painful clicking, as well as restore lost movement and function.

Clicking knee at E3 Physio - West Burleigh

What Is Knee Clicking? 


Throughout the medical field, the popping, clicking, cracking, or grating sensation people experience in their joints is referred to as crepitus. It derives its name from the Latin word for ‘rattling’ or ‘creaking’, and can occur in people of all ages and fitness levels. When experienced without pain, this clicking is not usually cause for concern. 

Benign cases are often attributed to cavitation – a process in which joints gradually build up nitrogen bubbles. When these bubbles gather in the spaces between bones, it can cause the affected area to feel stiff or tight. ‘Cracking’ the joint releases the pent up nitrogen, which restores movement and prevents further popping until the next accumulation cycle3

What Causes Painful Knee Clicking? 

Painful clicking or popping in the knees can be due to a number of ailments. It’s not possible to determine which without an appropriate medical examination, though some of the more common culprits are:
Torn Meniscus – A partially or completely torn meniscus can result from any activity in which you forcefully rotate or twist your knee, for example during sport. It involves an injury to the C-shaped piece of cartilage that cushions the thigh bone and the shin bone4
Osteoarthritis – More common in the elderly (though certainly capable of affecting younger demographics) knee osteoarthritis is a deterioration of the knee cartilage over time. It’s generally thought of as a ‘wear and tear’ issue that slowly increases in intensity, as opposed to one that appears after a single trauma.
Iliotibial Band Syndrome – This occurs when the iliotibial band on the outside of the knee ‘catches’ as the joint bends. It manifests as a snapping feeling on the outside of the knee, and is capable of causing significant inflammation and pain when the individual runs, cycles, or performs other repetitive leg movements5.
Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) and Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) Injuries – While capable of producing a loud popping sound, these types of injuries usually only do so once, and with trauma to the knee. That’s because the noise is created by a one-off tear to the ligament itself, rather than any repetitive mechanism. Both ACL and MCL injuries result in disabling pain and swelling, as well as buckling of the knee upon use6.
Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome – An umbrella term for pain originating from the patellofemoral joint itself (i.e. the kneecap), patellofemoral pain syndrome may arise from a combination of overload or overuse, anatomical or mechanical anomalies, or muscular dysfunction. Individuals with the condition often report snapping, popping, or grinding in the knee7.


It’s important to seek appropriate medical treatment when a clicking knee produces pain, or has an impact on movement or quality of life. Depending on the severity of the condition, the following therapies may be employed:
Physiotherapy – Using orthopaedic testing and diagnosis, a qualified physiotherapist can recognise the source of the clicking or popping, and help you manage it accordingly. 
They can gently stretch and strengthen the muscles surrounding the knee, increasing mobility and reducing pain. They also offer advice to patients on the activities that are likely to cause further harm, and can provide low-impact alternatives to help sufferers maintain their fitness during recovery.
Focussed Shockwave Therapy – Focused shockwave therapy is a non-invasive procedure whereby acoustic energy is directed into damaged tissue via a small, handheld device.
Despite being a little unconventional, it’s shown promising results in helping reduce some causes of knee clicking. Studies have found that focused shockwave therapy can have “beneficial effects on cartilage, subchondral bone and surrounding tissues”, and is particularly helpful in the treatment of knee osteoarthritis pain8.

Surgery – Recognised as a last resort, keyhole surgery is necessary in some cases to repair any physical damage to the ligaments and cartilage9

In such an instance, undertaking a suitable post-operative physiotherapy plan is vital to regaining strength, mobility, and functionality in the knee joint and legs10.

What should you do if you experience painful clicking knees?


If you experience recurring and painful clicking or popping knees, it’s important to consult with a qualified health professional. Knee issues can have many causes, so an accurate diagnosis is needed to get you on the correct management plan.

Once diagnosed, reliable and experienced practitioners, like those at E3 Physio, will be able to treat your condition with proven and effective therapies.

At E3, we help patients manage knee pain through a combination of manual treatments including joint mobilisation, stretching, strengthening exercises, and focused shockwave therapy. This multifaceted approach has allowed countless of our clients to overcome knee pain, and return to doing the things they love.

You can reach out to our friendly team via phone, or book an appointment online.