It’s no fun to have a stiff knee or to feel aches and pains in your knee joints. Knees are so central to our ability to move easily, that any hiccup in their smooth operation can be very frustrating. Luckily, there is help available in the form of medication, physiotherapy and – as a last resort – surgery.

Knee pain can be caused by arthritis, repetitive trauma, a strain or another injury. The knee is a hinge joint and its workings are complex. It is the spot where the shin bone (tibia) and the thigh bone (femur) join, supported by four ligaments, tendons and cartilage that acts as a shock absorber (meniscus). The kneecap (patella) protects the joint. An injury to any of these components or more than one is likely to produce stiffness and pain in the knee, as will osteoarthritis, or chronic inflammation of the joint.

If you suddenly develop knee pain, the first steps should be the RICE treatment regimen: Rest your knee, Ice it to prevent or lessen swelling, Compress (bandage) it for support and Elevate it to send healing blood flow to the area.

Next, it’s wise to have your physician or trained physiotherapist examine you, diagnose the problem and suggest the appropriate long-term solution. If some components of your knee joint aren’t working properly and you ignore the aches and pains, other parts of the knee will generally compensate and the stress that results can lead to chronic issues.

What Causes Stiffness in the Knee?

The root of your knee problems will depend on where you are experiencing pain or stiffness. Pain at the front of the knee may be caused by problems with the position and tracking of your kneecap — a condition known as patellofemoral stress syndrome (PFSS) – that may involve swelling of the kneecap and the tendon connecting the kneecap and shin.

Pain on the outside of the knee may indicate an injury to the medial meniscus or medial collateral ligament, often damaged during exercises that involve twisting. Pain to the outside of the knee can have many causes, including injury to the hamstring tendon or a ligament. One common culprit is stress to the iliotibial band, a thick band of muscle running from the outside of the hip to the front of the knee, where it can rub and abnormally.

There is also pain at the back of the knee, which is rarer, but could be caused by a cyst or by an injury to the hamstring, which attaches there.


Your trained physiotherapist will generally assess your injury using a variety of techniques that may include an analysis of your gait to see how you walk; measuring range of motion to see what capabilities your knee has; measuring your knee’s strength to determine if you have a muscular imbalance; and palpation, hands-on assessment to check for swelling, abnormalities and pain.

What Is the Best Exercise for Stiff Knees?

Exercises targeted to your specific knee problem will be prescribed as the main treatment. Often, this involves strengthening the knee itself, as well as the surrounding supports that can help take pressure off the knee itself. These exercises will generally include balance exercises, lower extremity stretches, straight leg raises and hip strengthening, since your hip muscles help control your knee position.

In addition, your trained physiotherapist may employ techniques such as ultrasound, soft tissue massage, acupuncture, electric stimulation and kinesiology taping.

If your pain is due to arthritis, movement is essential to keep your joints lubricated. There is currently no cure for arthritis other than knee replacement surgery, but the symptoms can be managed and controlled.

How to Prevent Knee Stiffness and Pain

Lifestyle modifications can help you keep your knees healthy and strong. You’ll want to maintain a healthy weight, because excess kilos put pressure on your knees. Keeping your hamstrings and quadriceps strong will assist your knees, because these muscles provide support to the knee joints. If you participate in sports, be sure your technique is solid so you aren’t putting unnecessary pressure on the knee joints.

In addition, be sure to warm up sufficiently before you exercise. Stretch your legs before and after you participate in a sport or athletic endeavour; do so slowly.

Remember, knee pain is a signal your body is sending to let you know that something is wrong. Don’t exacerbate the injury by ignoring signals. When you feel pain, employ the RICE method and make an appointment with your physiotherapy professional.

Knees Stiff or Sore?