Top of Knee Pain
Reviewed By - Sean Byers, MD

Published: Last Updated: Category: Knee Pain

Pain at the top of the knee can be debilitating. It is often caused by repetitive motions associated with athletics or work-related activities such as climbing stairs. Conditions are easy to treat and rarely require surgery. 

Many cases of knee pain can be prevented by taking simple precautions. The professionals at Health Report Live offer valuable information on how to care for pain that affects the top of the knee.

Understanding What Knee Pain Is

Knee pain is described as extreme discomfort in the knee joint that is commonly the result of an injury or health condition that affects the joint. The knee consists of many moving parts. 

Pain can be behind, in front, deep inside, or at the bottom or top of the knee. Pain and discomfort are accompanied by inflammation that causes stiffness and reduced flexibility or range of motion.

Brief Anatomy of the Knee

The knee is a hinge-type joint where the femur, fibula, and the tibia meet. The patella is encased in a tendon that connects the femur and tibia in the front of the joint. The lateral collateral ligament connects the femur and fibula on the outside of the knee. 

The medial collateral ligament connects the femur and tibia on the inside. The lateral and medial meniscus acts as cushions between the femur and the tibia.

What to Know About the Top of Knee Pain

Causes of knee pain fall into two categories. This includes injuries or illness. Pain at the top of the knee is often the result of repeated kneeling or overuse. The bursa at the top of the patella or kneecap can become irritated with constant and repetitive use. 

Pain that is focused at the top of the knee is often a form of tendonitis that results from the tendon being strained or stretched too far beyond its limits. It can also be caused by degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

What Does Pain Above the Kneecap Mean

Pain above the knee cap indicates that one of the tendons of the knee has become irritated or pushed beyond its limits. In most cases, this type of pain is the result of an injury such as a slip and fall, tripping, or a work/sports-related accident. 

Repetitive motion is also a common culprit. When pain occurs in this part of the knee, it is often because one of the tendons and ligaments has been pulled or stretched too far. 

Symptoms

Common symptoms of top-of-the-knee pain will vary depending on the severity of the injury. Immediately after the injury, the pain may be sharp and stabbing, accompanied by heat and the sensation of inflammation or swelling. It may turn into more of an ache as healing progresses. 

The joint pain may take on a new intensity if you begin to push it too far during exercise. If you continue to perform repetitive motion tasks, you may also feel a dull ache after you have reached a certain level of activity. 

Possible Causes

There are several common causes of knee pain. It can be caused by injuries as well as illness. Overuse and repetitive motion over long periods associated with activities like long-distance running or cycling can also cause top-of-the-knee pain, knee problems, and discomfort.

Patellar Tendinitis

Patellar tendinitis also known as Jumper’s knee is irritation of the patellar tendon that holds the knee cap in place. Constant, repetitive motion is often the cause of irritation and will continue to worsen as long as the movements continue.

Other Forms of Tendonitis

Several tendons make the knee joint functional. Any of the tendons within the knee can become irritated and sore. Slip and fall accidents and athletic injuries can easily irritate the tendons in the knee. Work-related injuries that involve constant motion or climbing in and out of vehicles may strain these tendons and ligaments.

Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome

Patellofemoral pain syndrome is also known as a runner’s knee. It is caused by the constant movement of the knee while running over various types of terrain. 

Because patellofemoral pain syndrome is attributed to overuse, the main course of treatment usually involves a lot of rest and minimal activity. It may also be beneficial if a brace or compression sleeve/wrap is worn.

Arthritis

Arthritis is a degenerative condition that affects the joints. It can lead to damage to the bone as well as the meniscus, leaving the bones in the joint to rub together. Irritation and stiffness can lead to a dull ache that worsens during the winter months or when the weather conditions change. Arthritis pain will vary from person to person.

Bursitis

Bursitis is a painful condition that affects the joints. Bursae are small, fluid-filled sacs that act as cushions between two bones. Bursitis is the result of these bursa sacs becoming irritated and inflamed. This occurs when the small bursa at the top of the knee cap becomes irritated from overuse or repetitive motion.

Injury

Injuries can occur from a variety of accidents. Sports injuries such as anterior knee pain from an anterior cruciate ligament injury (ACL) and meniscus tears, and work-related injuries involving the knees are common. 

Any knee injury will cause pain and discomfort. The severity of the injury will determine how long you will have to refrain from working out or putting too much pressure on your leg.

Quadriceps

An injury to your quadriceps may also lead to pain at the top of the knee. Quadriceps tendons that attach the quadriceps to the femur at the top of the knee may become strained if an injury affects the thigh or thigh bone. This type of tendonitis would be considered a secondary injury. The symptoms may not be so severe.

Diagnosis

You should visit your healthcare professional at the first sign of pain. Your doctor or health care provider will be able to look at the injury, provide a physical exam, and make an accurate diagnosis. 

An X-ray will be requested, as well as an MRI. Using these tools, your doctor can determine the cause of your pain. If surgical treatment is needed, your doctor will refer you to an orthopedist. If only the soft tissues have been affected, surgery can be avoided. 

Potential Treatments

If surgery is not required, your doctor may prescribe physical therapy, sports medicine, taping, shoe inserts, over-the-counter pain relievers, anti-inflammatory medications (like ibuprofen), and the use of R.I.C.E. to speed up the healing process. R.I.C.E. stands for rest, ice pack, compression, and elevate. 

Using these four treatment options together will provide the body with what it needs to recover from an injury. 

The most effective pain management plan includes many different treatment options. During the healing process, wearing a compression sleeve or wrap will provide much-needed support for your knee will need during healing. Taking care of your pain when it starts will help prevent chronic knee pain.

Knee replacement surgery may be your only option if the damage is severe. Medical professionals at Cleveland Clinic can offer medical advice on when this type of surgery is necessary. The most common form of arthritis can cause extensive damage that may make knee replacement surgery your best option for pain relief. 

Prevention

Knee pain can be prevented. The use of proper form and body mechanics are essential if you want to avoid an injury or sports injury while working out or doing athletics. Low-impact exercises like strengthening exercises will improve the range of motion. 

Learning to move properly will help you stay in balance and will reduce wear and tear on the joints. Wear a knee brace or wrap to provide that extra layer of support while you exercise. Eat a healthy diet to provide the nutritional support your body needs to thrive and remain healthy. Physical activity is also a must.

Useful Exercises

There are many useful exercises you can count on to strengthen the knee joint thigh muscles, quadriceps muscles, and lower leg muscles so that the pain will go away. 

Swimming provides resistance without stressing the joints or causing the injury to worsen. Soaking in a warm bath after your workout may help it feel better. These are also simple exercises you can do at home.

Seated Leg Extensions

You can use a machine at the gym or sit in a firm chair and lift your legs until they are parallel to the floor. Hold for a few seconds and gradually lower your feet to the floor. Repeat nine times. Perform in sets of five or ten, whichever you are more comfortable with.

Quadriceps Stretch

Hold onto something sturdy. Perform knee bends, bringing your foot upwards toward your glutes. Grab your foot with your hand and hold that position for 15 to 30 seconds. Do the same thing with your other leg. Perform exercises in sets of five or ten.

When to Seek Immediate Medical Attention

It is natural to feel mild pain if you live an active lifestyle. If you begin to notice your knee hurting when you perform specific movements or if you feel a sharp, stabbing pain that appears out of nowhere, you may want to seek immediate medical attention. 

Any time you receive an injury or experience pain that lasts for longer than a few days, you should schedule an appointment with your orthopedic or orthopaedic doctor so that you can identify the cause and start a recovery plan.

Preventing Pain Above Your Knee

Preventing pain above the knee starts with building strength and flexibility. The lower back, glutes, abdominal core, hamstrings, and quadriceps should all be strengthened so that they can help to stabilize and support the body. 

Use proper form and body mechanics when you’re exercising or playing a sport. This minimizes your risk of an injury and keeps all of the tissues within the joints healthy and in good condition. Weight loss will also take the stress off your knee.

Getting a good night’s sleep and choosing the right sleeping position will help. Better sleep patterns allow for deeper sleep that allows the body time to make much-needed repairs. Poor sleep patterns weaken the body and make healing difficult.

Treatment for Top of Knee Pain

Physical therapy, compression sleeves/wraps, and deep tissue massage can all be used in conjunction with one another to create an effective treatment plan that will promote healing and strengthen the injured area. 

Anti-inflammatory medications will help to keep the swelling down. Walking or swimming will help keep the joint flexible without putting too much stress on the joint.

Exercises to Treat Top of Knee Pain

In addition to the quadriceps stretch and seated leg extensions, using elastic bands and swimming regularly will provide strength and stability as the joint continues to heal. 

Exercising for 30 minutes every other day will ensure that the injured joint will remain flexible and continue to build strength. Regular exercise helps to maintain healthy joints.

When Will My Knee Feel Better?

Your knee has an abundance of connective tissues that allow it to move and carry your body weight. It may take up to two months or longer for the joint to fully heal if the injury is severe. 

Most connective tissues receive less blood flow than soft tissues, so they take longer to heal. With sufficient rest, stabilization, and physical therapy, your knee will feel better much sooner than later. Weight loss, regular exercise, and pain management will improve your quality of life.