Experiencing pain on the outer (lateral) part of your knee can happen for different reasons, like injury or arthritis. Another reason could be inflammation in a tough band of tissue running down the outer thigh and attaching to the front of the shinbone (tibia).
This type of knee pain is often seen in long-distance runners, but it can also result from injuries where the knee twists or gets pushed away from the other leg. Regardless of why it happens, knee pain can really affect how you move and your overall quality of life.
The treatment and recovery for lateral knee pain depend on what’s causing it and how bad it is. Usually, doctors first suggest non-surgical treatments, but sometimes surgery may be needed.
In this article, we’ll explore what causes lateral knee pain, how doctors diagnose it, and the different ways to treat it.
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Outer Knee Pain Symptoms
Outer knee pain can show up in different ways, depending on what’s causing it. Here’s a breakdown of what you might feel:
- Dull Ache or Sharp Pain: It can be a continuous, dull ache or a sharp pain in one spot.
- Swelling: Sometimes, your knee might swell up due to fluid buildup.
- Clicking or Locking: Your knee might make clicking noises or get stuck sometimes.
Now, let’s look at some specific conditions and their symptoms:
Iliotibial Band Syndrome: You might feel pain on the outside of your knee. It can range from mild discomfort during activities like running to severe pain that makes walking or sitting with a bent knee painful.
Lateral Collateral Ligament Injury: This can cause pain on the outside of the knee, making it feel unstable. Swelling and tingling in your foot might happen, especially on uneven surfaces.
Torn Meniscal Cartilage: You might have knee pain, stiffness, and occasional locking or catching sensations. Swelling can come and go, and straightening your leg might be difficult.
Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injury: Sudden pain and a popping sound might occur. Your knee can swell due to internal bleeding, and it may feel unstable.
Osteoarthritis: This can lead to pain when you put weight on your knee, but it gets better with rest. Your knee might be stiff, especially in the morning or after sitting for a while, but it improves as you move around. Swelling might be there too.
Understanding these symptoms can help you and your healthcare provider figure out what’s wrong and plan the right treatment.
Common Causes of Outer Knee Pain
IT Band Syndrome: This happens when a thick band of tissue running from your hip to your shin gets tight and inflamed, often from repetitive activities like running, cycling, climbing, or jumping. It can cause pain on the outer side of your knee and even in your outer thigh.
Lateral Meniscus Tear: The cartilage between your thigh and shinbone can tear during sudden twisting motions, like those in sports such as football, soccer, tennis, and basketball. It can also occur slowly as you age. Symptoms include pain, swelling, a feeling of your leg locking, and trouble bending or squatting.
LCL Injury: The LCL is a ligament in your knee that helps stabilize the outer part. Injuries to it often happen when the inside of your knee gets hit, causing the ligament to stretch or tear. Symptoms include soreness on the outside of your knee, swelling, stiffness, and a sense of instability.
Osteoarthritis (OA): This is a common type of arthritis that affects many adults. It occurs as the cartilage in your knee joint wears down over time, allowing your bones to rub against each other. OA can lead to knee pain, stiffness, and a decrease in joint movement, especially on the outer side of the knee, which can be more noticeable if you have bowed legs.
Lateral Tibial Plateau Fracture: These fractures at the top of your shinbone can result in significant knee pain, often caused by accidents or falls directly impacting the outer knee. Treatment may involve surgery if the bones are not aligned properly.
Contusion: Also known as a bruised knee, a knee contusion can cause lateral knee pain. The duration of symptoms varies depending on the severity of the injury, with pain typically lasting for a few hours or days. Treatment options include using ice, resting, elevating the knee, and gentle stretching to help it heal.
How do doctors diagnose lateral knee pain?
When you go to the doctor for pain on the outer side of your knee, they will ask you questions about the pain, like where it is and what it feels like (sharp or achy). They might also ask when it started and what you were doing when it started.
During the physical exam, the doctor will move your knee around, checking how it moves and feels. They’ll look for swelling, tender spots, or any looseness in the ligaments.
Sometimes, they may need to do some imaging tests like:
- X-ray: This shows the bones.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): It gives detailed pictures of ligaments, tendons, muscles, and cartilage.
- Computed Tomography (CT) scan: This provides a more detailed view of the bone than an X-ray.
Based on your symptoms, the physical exam, and the results of these tests, the doctor can figure out what’s causing your knee pain and how bad it is. Then, they can recommend the right treatment for you.
How to Treat Different Knee Problems
Minor Lateral Knee Injuries: If you have a minor strain or discomfort, rest and non-surgical methods are usually enough. However, more serious issues like ligament or meniscus tears may require surgery.
Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS): Rest and gradual return to activity are key. Strengthen your knee with specific exercises and stretches. You can also use ice, anti-inflammatory meds, corticosteroid injections, physical therapy, and a foam roller.
Lateral Meniscus Tear: Small tears may heal with rest, ice, bracing, physical therapy, or injections. Severe tears often need surgery to repair or trim the damaged part.
Ligament Injuries: Minor sprains may heal with rest and braces. Complete LCL tears usually require surgery.
Osteoarthritis: Non-surgical options include strength training, knee braces, water and land-based exercises, weight loss if needed, injections, and low-impact exercises. Surgery like knee replacement may be an option for severe cases with persistent pain.
Are you wondering how long it takes to recover from different knee problems? It depends on what’s wrong with your knee, how bad it is, and what kind of treatment you need. Here’s a simple breakdown:
IT Band Syndrome: Usually 4 to 8 weeks, depending on how serious it is and if you stick to your therapy.
Lateral Meniscus Tears: Minor tears take about 2 weeks to get back to normal activities, but major tears needing surgery might take about 6 weeks.
LCL Sprains or Tears: If it’s not too bad, about a week; if it’s worse, maybe a month. Surgery can mean several months of recovery.
Osteoarthritis: If you don’t need surgery, you can find relief quickly with treatments. But if you do need surgery and therapy, it can take several months.
For most knee injuries, doing physical therapy is usually enough to help you get strong again and move your knee properly.
How to Prevent Lateral Knee Pain
If you have lateral knee pain, especially if you’re carrying extra weight, here are some simple steps to help you feel better:
Manage Your Weight: Being overweight increases the risk of knee pain. Maintaining a healthy body weight reduces inflammation and eases joint stress.
Stay Active: Regular low-impact exercises are good for your joint health. They also strengthen the muscles that support your knees.
Seek Professional Help: Consider seeing a physical therapist regularly. They can help strengthen the muscles around your knee joint, improving stability, speeding up recovery from injuries, and reducing the risk of future knee problems.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1: Should I keep my sore knee straight or bent?
It’s best to keep your leg straight most of the time. If you need to cross your legs, limit it to 20 minutes at a time. For a comfortable sleeping position, lie on your back with your knee slightly elevated.
Q2: What exercises should I avoid with lateral knee pain?
Stay away from exercises and movements that strain your knee joint, such as deep lunges and squats. Also, avoid activities like running, jumping, and kicking that stress your joints.
Q3: How can I stretch the lateral part of my knee?
To effectively stretch the knee and its surrounding muscles, try stretches like knee straighteners, straight leg raises, side leg raises, calf stretches, and seated hamstring stretches.