Why Do Knees Hurt When Going up and Down Stairs?

Nearly 15 million American adults experience severe joint pain(1)

Medical conditions like osteoarthritis, chondromalacia patella, and knee injuries like a damaged kneecap may cause knee pain, making it difficult for individuals to do practical, everyday activities like going up and down stairs. 

Knee pain when going up and down stairs can impact the quality of one’s life. Not to mention, many American seniors do not have adequate access to their care(2).

Health Report Live provides the information seniors need to manage severe knee pain. This article will cover the causes of knee pain when walking up and down stairs to various ways of treating it through over-the-counter medications, physical therapy, or surgery.

A common health problem that some individuals face is when their knee hurts going up and down stairs. Knee pain is a common symptom experienced by people of all ages and may occur suddenly following an injury or exercise(3)

Imbalances and misalignment may cause problems for fitness enthusiasts and for individuals with risk factors or muscle weakness.

When someone’s knee hurts when they climb stairs, there is possibly a physical problem that is causing damage to their knee. 

Pain is caused when specialized nerves, known as nociceptors, detect damage to one’s tissues(4)

The pain experienced while climbing stairs may be caused by various factors. Common factors include acute swelling or internal tissue damage(5), which may require surgery.

For individuals experiencing knee pain while climbing stairs, it would have been better to stay off the affected knee as much as they can until they talk with a physical therapist and recommend a treatment plan.

What Does It Mean When You Experience Knee Pain Going Up and Down Stairs? 

Knee pain while doing practical, everyday activities like climbing stairs can indicate underlying injuries or medical problems(6). Overuse injuries which are caused when someone puts too much strain on their knee, can also trigger pain(7).   

According to Mayo Clinic, overuse injuries are preventable(8). However, underlying medical conditions can be harder to treat.   

Arthritis, osteoporosis, and other medical conditions that damage the knee’s natural lubrication may cause pain while climbing stairs. Treating these conditions is more challenging and involves working with a doctor to identify the cause of pain.

Causes of Knee Pain When Going Up and Down Stairs

The causes of knee pain going up and down stairs may range from pinched nerves to complicated medical conditions.

The knee is one of the most intricate types of joints(9). An article from Harvard Health Publishing suggested that individuals experiencing difficulty when walking or climbing stairs may need to check their weight(10).

Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial because the excess weight may put additional stress on weight-bearing joints like the knees(11).

Individuals engaging in physical activities may also experience pain sensations like shin splints, making it difficult to go up and down stairs.

 Shin splints, usually caused by exercise, can also cause pain and soreness in the inner side of one’s shinbone(12)

Below are other common causes of knee pain when climbing stairs:

  • Iliotibial band syndrome(13) and physical injuries like damage to the side of the knee or the different tissues of the knee
  • Types of arthritis such as osteoarthritis(14) and gout(15) 
  • Underlying medical problems that cause anterior knee pain, issues with how the knee bends, and other knee problems(16)

Chondromalacia Patella

Chondromalacia is a condition that causes the smooth cartilage that wraps the kneecap to wear down and degrade. Physical damage or underlying medical conditions may trigger chondromalacia.   

Chondromalacia is also called runner’s knee(17). Abnormal knee cap positioning, flat feet, and knee overuse may increase the risk of having chondromalacia patella(18)

Doctors may prescribe medical treatments, such as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications) and sports medicine to reduce the discomfort of the condition(19). Healthcare providers may also recommend physical therapies. 

For extreme cases, total knee replacement is necessary(20)

Can Chondromalacia Patella Be Cured?

Chondromalacia can be cured depending on the root cause of this condition.

If improper running technique, medical conditions, or physical injuries cause chondromalacia, following a treatment plan may help. 

Doctors often recommend low-impact exercises for treating chondromalacia. The exercise routine usually involves avoiding running in favor of swimming or riding a bicycle(21)

However, if degeneration of the cartilage itself causes chondromalacia patella, then the condition can not be fully cured(22). Still, limiting the damage through a treatment plan that often involves medications, therapy, and lifestyle changes may help the condition become asymptomatic. 


Arthritis can also cause knee pain(23), making it difficult for an individual to go up and down stairs. 

There are various types of arthritis, including gout and pseudogout, which can cause knee pain by inflaming the tissues of these joints(24). The causes of arthritis include infections, underlying diseases, and damage to one’s joints.

Medication, surgery, and self-care may treat arthritis. The particular treatment plan may depend on the type of arthritis affecting the knee.

Gout, for example, is treated with medications and self-care. The medications for gout are mostly anti-inflammatory medications, while self-care for gout includes gentle exercise, dietary changes, and avoiding the triggers that cause a gout flare-up.

How Is Knee Cartilage Damaged?

Overuse and mechanical dysfunction in the knee may damage the cartilage on and around the kneecap. 

The knee joint experiences a lot of strain during physical activity, including exercising, stretching, and even climbing stairs. If the knee is overworked, these activities can damage the cartilage that cushions the knee.

Individuals with sedentary lifestyles can also experience more damage to their cartilage(25). Bodyweight, health problems, and a lack of fitness that keeps the knee in shape may cause further cartilage damage.   

Other Potential Causes of Pain When Going up and Down Stairs 

If the knee hurts going up and down stairs, there could be more conditions that are causing this pain.

The quadriceps and hamstring muscles are the most prominent muscles that connect to the knee. Damage to these leg muscles can cause severe knee pain(26), mainly when doing activities such as climbing up or down stairs.

Damage to the thigh bone, femur, patella, and other bones around the knee is also a common cause of knee pain(27). These bones are put under a lot of stress when climbing stairs. Hence, fractures, bone spurs, and other injuries may make climbing stairs very painful.

Athletes commonly get tears to the ligaments of the knee(28). These injuries used to be career enders, but doctors can now repair ligament injuries through surgery. A ligament can also be damaged through a fall, stretching beyond one’s limits, or exercising without proper technique.

Then there are medical health conditions that can make climbing stairs painful. When someone goes up and down stairs, conditions like patellofemoral pain syndrome may flare-up. Any condition that causes inflammation around the knee may also make going up stairs difficult.

What Knee Injury Hurts Going Down Stairs?

Runner’s knee may be one of the common causes of knee pain while walking down stairs.

When the cartilage wears down, it may lead to the development of the runner’s knee under the patella, either due to overuse or a mechanical abnormality in the knee(29)

Runner’s knee is treated by physical therapy(30). Avoiding putting the knee under too much strain until the condition improves may also help. 

Tips for Preventing Pain When Going up and Down Stairs 

There are a few things that individuals can do to travel up and down stairs with less knee pain. The most pertinent thing that one can do is get treatment for the cause of knee pain. 

Individuals experiencing knee pain can get relief using anti-inflammatory medications, over-the-counter treatments, or working with a doctor or physical therapist.

Here is a list of simple things that one can start doing today to reduce their pain when using stairs.

  • Avoiding using stairs if there is an elevator or ramp available
  • Using the handrail to support oneself as they climb the stairs
  • Shifting one’s weight to their “good” knee to assist the damaged knee during the climb
  • Using bags that evenly distribute weight, such as a backpack with a chest strap. 
  • Avoiding carrying heavy or bulky objects while experiencing knee pain
  • Trying to avoid being too sedentary throughout the day to give one’s knee some natural exercise
  • Using rehab and prehab exercises to improve the strength of one’s knee

How to Stop Knee Pain When Going Up and Down Stairs 

Most people ask, “How do we stop knee pain when climbing stairs?” The answer comes down to getting the proper medical advice and working with a physical therapist who can help individuals overcome the conditions causing their knee pain(31).

A simple thing an individual can do to prevent knee pain going up and down stairs is to exercise regularly(32). The exercise routine can be as easy as going for a quick walk to doing exercises that specifically strengthen the knee joint. 

Performing knee exercises may help reduce the risk of damage to one’s knee(33).

Those who are at risk for osteoarthritis or gout may consult their doctors to find the best treatments for their conditions. 

Treatments for Knee Pain When Going Up and Down Stairs 

The types of treatments for knee pain when going up and down stairs may depend on the cause of one’s condition.

Treatments for primary injuries, like a sprain or pulled muscle, include rest, over-the-counter medications, and staying off one’s knee. 

Meanwhile, injuries that require more medical attention may need prescription medications, while a torn tendon may need surgery to repair fully. 

Individuals may also work with a physical therapist to rebuild the strength of their knee after a severe injury. They may also work with these experts while recovering from another treatment.

Health Report Live helps seniors find the healthcare advice they need. Check out our other articles to get the information you need to stay fit and pain-free!

Sean Byers, MD

Sean Byers, MD

Sean Byers is currently a Resident in the Internal Medicine program at UTMB. He studied at the University of Queensland School of Medicine as well as received his Master’s in Public Health with a focus in epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Southern California. His background is in biology, computer science, public health, and internal medicine.

Recommended Articles


  1. Living with Severe Joint Pain https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/communications/features/living-with-joint-pain.html
  2. Barriers to Health Care Access Among the Elderly and Who Perceives Them https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1448535/
  3. Knee Pain https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/knee-pain/symptoms-causes/syc-20350849
  4. Chapter 6: Pain Principles https://nba.uth.tmc.edu/neuroscience/m/s2/chapter06.html
  5. The Acute Swollen Knee: Diagnosis and Management https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3704066/
  6. Knee Pain https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/knee-pain/symptoms-causes/syc-20350849
  7. Overuse Injury: How to Prevent Training Injuries https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/overuse-injury/art-20045875
  8. Ibid.
  9. The Knee Is One of the Most Complicated Joints in the Body. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/globalassets/pdfs/about-your-knee.pdf
  10. Why Weight Matters When It Comes to Joint Pain https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/why-weight-matters-when-it-comes-to-joint-pain
  11. Ibid.
  12. Shin splints https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/shin-splints/symptoms-causes/syc-20354105
  13. Iliotibial Band Syndrome https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/21967-iliotibial-band-syndrome
  14. The Epidemiology and Impact of Pain in Osteoarthritis https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3753584/
  15. Gout https://healthtalk.org/gout/gout-mobility-and-footwear
  16. Anterior Knee Pain https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000452.htm
  17. Chondromalacia https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/c/chondromalacia.html
  18. Knee Pain (Chondromalacia Patella) https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15607-knee-pain-chondromalacia-patella
  19. Chondromalacia https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/c/chondromalacia.html
  20. Anterior Knee Pain Following Total Knee Replacement Correlates With the OARSI Score of the Cartilage of the Patella https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4105776/
  21. Chondromalacia https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/c/chondromalacia.html
  22. Description of Patellofemoral Chondromalacia https://drrobertlaprademd.com/patellofemoral-chondromalacia/
  23. Arthritis of the Knee https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/21978-arthritis-of-the-knee
  24. Gout or Pseudogout? https://www.arthritis.org/diseases/more-about/gout-or-pseudogout
  25. Lack of Exercise Is a Major Cause of Chronic Diseases https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4241367/
  26. Quadriceps Muscle Strain https://www.physio-pedia.com/Quadriceps_Muscle_Strain
  27. Knee Pain and Problems https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/knee-pain-and-problems
  28. Knee Injuries in Athletes https://www.uhhospitals.org/services/orthopedic-services/conditions-and-treatments/sports-medicine-services/conditions-and-treatments/knee-injuries-in-athletes
  29. Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (Runner's Knee) https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/patellofemoral-pain-syndrome-runners-knee
  30. Physical Therapy for Knee Pain Secondary to Osteoarthritis: Future Research Needs https://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/products/osteoarthritis-knee-future/research
  31. Comparative Effectiveness of Physical Therapy for Knee Pain Secondary to Osteoarthritis https://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/products/arthritis-knee-physical-therapy/research-protocol
  32. Take Control of Your Knee Pain https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/take-control-of-your-knee-pain
  33. Knee Exercises https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/staying-healthy/knee-exercises/