Lateral Knee Pain

  • Lateral knee pain has many potential causes, including overuse, injury, and health conditions like arthritis. It is common to experience other symptoms alongside knee pain, such as stiffness and reduced mobility.
  • An estimated 25% of adults experience knee pain. While it can negatively impact the quality of life, most pain is treatable.
  • Older adults are at increased risk for lateral knee pain due to arthritis and weakened knee tendons. However, knee pain can impact people of all ages.

Health Report Live can provide seniors with information about the causes of lateral knee pain and potential treatments. By learning more about knee pain, seniors will be better equipped to protect their knees and seek out care when it is needed. 

Dealing With Lateral Knee Pain

Chronic pain can negatively impact the quality of life.1 Knee pain can also limit mobility and range of motion. Treatment may reduce the severity of pain and improve mobility. 

What Is Lateral Knee Pain?

Lateral knee pain refers to pain on the outside of your knee. This pain can occur suddenly after an injury or come on gradually. There are many causes of lateral knee pain, and symptoms can vary based on the source of the pain

What Does Lateral Knee Pain Feel Like?

Pain can be sharp, aching, or throbbing. Feelings of pain occur on the outside of the knee. The knee may also be tender or warm to the touch.

Types of Lateral Knee Pain

Knee injuries and overuse are frequent sources of lateral knee pain. Arthritis of the knee can also cause pain on the side of the knee joint. The risk for knee arthritis is significantly higher in adults over the age of 50. 

Lateral knee pain may occur due to inflammation in the iliotibial band, a fibrous band of tissue that spans from the hipbone to the shinbone. This is known as iliotibial band syndrome.

Different Symptoms of Lateral Knee Pain

Symptoms of lateral knee pain include pain and swelling. These symptoms typically worsen with physical activity. Stiffness, limited range of motion, and knee instability are other common symptoms.

If the knee has sustained an injury, there may be bruising around the knee joint. Redness may occur around the knee, and the area may be warm to the touch. Movement of the knee may cause unusual sounds, like popping or grinding.

Possible Causes of Lateral Knee Pain

An estimated 25% of adults experience knee pain. Causes of pain include injury, overuse, and chronic health conditions like arthritis. Below is information about potential causes of lateral knee pain. 

Lateral Knee Pain By Activity

Injuries caused by physical activity are a common source of knee pain. Activities that can lead to knee pain include running, squatting, and walking down the stairs. 

Overuse injuries are more likely to occur when the patella (kneecap) or knee joint has an underlying issue. Knee tendons weaken with age, putting seniors at increased risk for pain and injuries.

Iliotibial (It) Band Syndrome

The iliotibial band, which runs along the outside of the thigh, moves when the knee is bent and extended. Repeated movement may lead to irritation in nearby tissues, leading to aching pain in one or both knees. This condition is known as iliotibial band syndrome. 

Although anyone can develop this condition, it is most common in distance runners. It can effect one or both of the knees.

Lateral Meniscus Tear

The lateral meniscus is a piece of cartilage located on the knee’s outer side. This cartridge helps to regulate joint movement and absorb shock. A tear of the lateral meniscus can cause knee pain and reduced mobility.  

Meniscus tears can occur after sudden movement, overuse, or when the cartilage has deteriorated due to age. Tears cause swelling and tightness in the knee and can be moderate or severe.  

Lateral Collateral Ligament Injury

The lateral collateral ligament (LCL) spans from the upper fibula to the lower thigh bone. This ligament helps hold bones together, keeping the knee stable as it moves. Injuries to the ligament may occur when excessive pressure is placed on the knee joint. 

LCL Injury

The LCL can be strained or torn, causing a sprain or other type of injury. Common causes include a direct blow to the knee, a poor landing while jumping, or suddenly changing directions. Even though sports injuries typically occur while engaging in athletics, they can be sustained by anyone.  

LCL tears do not usually occur alone. It is common for an LCL injury to accompany an injury to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) or a dislocated knee.

What Does LCL Pain Feel Like?

An injury may cause sharp or aching pain. Swelling and tenderness across the outside of the knee are frequent symptoms. When the knee is active, it may feel like it will buckle or lock up. 

​​​​​​​Patellofemoral Pain

The soft tissue beneath the kneecap can become irritated or damaged, leading to patellofemoral pain syndrome. This type of pain is sometimes referred to as “runner’s knee” because it is more likely to be experienced by people who engage in running or jumping activities.

Hamstring Tendinopathy

Hamstring tendons connect the hamstrings to knee bones and other body parts. Tendons can become inflamed when overstretched or overused, leading to pain in the outer knee and other body areas, like the buttocks and lower leg. Stiffness around the knee is also frequently seen. 


46% of people will develop knee arthritis during their lifetime. This condition can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling in the knee joint. It can also alter the shape of the knee joint, leading to instability. 

Biceps Femoris Tendinopathy (Tendinitis)

The biceps femoris tendon is located along the back of the tight and is the primary hamstring muscle. One of the tendon’s two heads is outside the knee joint. When the tendon is inflamed or injured, it can cause tenderness and pain on the outside of the knee. 


The joints and tendons are lined by a specialized tissue called the synovium. Abnormal inflammation of the tissue surrounding the knee is called synovitis. 

The condition is localized to a small area when it initially develops; however, it eventually can spread across the knee joint. This condition is known as diffuse synovitis. Symptoms of synovitis include pain, weakness, and stiffness in the knee. 

Lateral Tibial Plateau Fracture

The tibial plateau is a section of the tibia bone that spans from the ankle to the knee. If this bone breaks, it may break into the knee joint, damaging the tendons, ligaments, and muscles around the knee. 

Tibia plateau fractures are severe injuries that require immediate treatment. If a fracture is not adequately treated or does not heal evenly, it could cause post-traumatic arthritis in the knee.


Bruising of the knee is known as a knee contusion. It is a type of injury that can occur after a direct blow to the knee. The impact of the injury can damage the small blood vessels on the knee, leading to bruising and swelling. 

Slipped Capital Femoral Epiphysis

Slipped capital femoral epiphysis (SCFE) is a condition that can cause knee pain in children and teens. While the body is growing, a growth plate called the physic can be found at the top of the thigh bone. This growth plate connects the femur to the femoral head. 

If the femoral head slips off the femur, it can cause mild to severe pain in the knee and groin. This condition is most likely to occur between the ages of 11 and 16.

Nerve Problems 

Nerve damage and irritation are potential sources of knee pain. In addition to pain, symptoms may include numbness, tingling, or a loss of sensation in the knee. Pinched nerves can cause muscle spasms and cramping, keeping those muscles from protecting knee joints. 

Peroneal Nerve Injury

The peroneal nerve controls the muscles that the leg uses when it lifts the ankles and toes. Common causes of injury include knee dislocation or fractures and knee surgery. This injury can cause pain, weakness, and numbness and may make it difficult to move the foot. 

Proximal Tibiofibular Joint Dislocation

The proximal tibiofibular joint helps to reduce the stress placed on the lower leg during movement. Dislocation of the joint can lead to chronic knee pain. It is a rare injury that is most likely to occur in athletes. 

Perthes’ Disease

Legg-Calve-Perthes disease is a hip disorder most likely to impact children aged 4 to 10.18 The condition cuts off blood flow to the femur, weakening the bone and increasing the risk of fractures. 

Although the blood supply will return with time, it can cause lasting damage to the femur and may lead to the early development of osteoarthritis. 

Referred Knee Pain

Pain in the knee may be referred from another part of the body, such as the hip or lower back. In most cases, referred pain is caused by nerve compression. When a nerve is compressed, it can lead to abnormal pain signals, causing someone to experience pain in a part of the body that is not irritated or injured. 

Lateral Knee Arthritis

Knee joints are protected by cartilage. That cartilage can erode over time, causing damage to the joints and bones. This can lead to the development of osteoarthritis.

What Is Lateral Knee Arthritis?

Cartilage loss can occur in the inside and outside part of the knee and in the medial knee, which is the area between the kneecap and the femur. Lateral knee arthritis refers to damage that is contained to the outside of the knee. It can cause severe pain, swelling and can make it difficult to move the knee. 

Lateral Knee Pain Diagnosis

There are many potential causes of lateral knee pain, so healthcare providers typically use differential diagnosis to identify the source of the pain. The diagnosis is based on patient history and a physical examination of the knee. 

Diagnostic procedures such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), X-Ray, CT scan, or an ultrasound may be used to reveal injuries. Once a knee problem has been diagnosed, healthcare providers can treat the condition.

If an infection or inflammation is suspected, the diagnostic process may also include blood tests or arthrocentesis. Arthrocentesis is a procedure that uses a needle to collect fluid from a knee joint so that it can.

Various Treatments for Lateral Knee Pain

Lateral knee injuries may be treated by a sports medicine practitioner, an orthopedic surgeon, or a general health care provider. Patients may be referred to a specialist after an initial assessment.

Treatment options may include medication, physical therapy, or knee braces. Prescription and over-the-counter medication can be used to manage pain. In some cases, medication like corticosteroids or hyaluronic acid may be injected directly into the knee joint.  

Surgery may also be used to treat knee injuries. Surgical procedures used to heal the knee include partial and total knee replacement surgery and arthroscopic surgery. Patients may be advised to try nonsurgical rehabilitation before an operation. 

In addition to treatment, patients are often given medical advice to help prevent pain in the future. The advice may include a recommended rest period and exercises to help improve balance and flexibility. 

How Do I Treat Knee Pain Caused by a Ligament or Meniscus Tear?

Treatment options for meniscus and ligament tears tend to be conservative. Most injuries will heal on their own as long as the knee is given a chance to rest. Crutches may be used to take pressure off the knee. 

Ice can be used to reduce swelling, and anti-inflammatory medication may be suggested to treat pain and inflammation. Once the injury heals, physical therapy can strengthen knee muscles, providing more support to the knee joint. 

Surgery may be recommended if the knee locks or if the injury does not properly heal. Possible surgical treatments include a meniscus transplant and knee replacement. 

Rehabilitation And Exercises

Exercise can strengthen the knee, reduce knee pain, and can help to rehabilitate the knee after an injury or surgery. 

Typically, exercises are focused on building knee strength, improving range of motion, and stretching muscles in the lower half of the body. These exercises can be done under the oversight of a physical therapist or at home. 

Although exercise has many potential benefits, it’s best to seek medical advice before trying rehabilitative exercises at home. The knee may need rest in order to heal. A sudden increase in exercise intensity may also cause additional knee damage.

What’s the Recovery Like for These Potential Causes of Lateral Knee Pain?

Knee pain caused by injury has a high recovery rate. While the duration of the recovery period can vary based on the injury and the treatment, most injuries can be managed by nonsurgical or surgical treatment. Patients who undergo total knee replacement surgery have a recovery rate of over 90%.

Although some conditions that cause lateral knee pain, like arthritis, have no cure, pain and other adverse symptoms can be significantly reduced with treatment. In addition to using medication to manage pain, treatments like physical therapy, weight loss, and surgery can reduce the frequency of symptoms.

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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.

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