What Causes Knee Clicking?

Dan Cavallari

Knee clicking may be caused by components of the knee joint being injured or simply by those components moving; more serious causes of knee clicking may be torn ligaments, damaged cartilage, or even arthritis. In most cases, knee clicking does not necessitate treatment unless it is accompanied by pain or discomfort, or if it is accompanied by weakness in the joint that causes the knee to give out or collapse. Many people experience clicking noises in the knee during every day activities without any pain or discomfort due to excess tissue in the knee that can be left over from birth.

An anterior view of the right knee.
An anterior view of the right knee.

More serious conditions such as arthritis or ligament tears can cause knee clicking as well. The clicking will almost always be accompanied by pain in these instances, and the clicking is an indication of a much larger issue. Arthritis occurs when the cartilage and ligaments in the knee begin to degrade, allowing deformities to develop and inflammation to occur. There is no cure for arthritis, but pain management techniques are available and steps can be taken to slow the process of arthritis degradation. In the most severe cases of arthritis, knee replacement surgery may be an option.

Knee clicking may be caused by an injury.
Knee clicking may be caused by an injury.

Knee clicking may occur when the cartilage in the knee becomes torn or otherwise damaged. A meniscus tear occurs when the shock-absorbing cartilage in the knee becomes damaged from over-twisting or enduring too much shock. Knee clicking may occur when the meniscus is torn, and the knee may lock up as well. A person suffering from a meniscus tear is very likely to feel pain throughout the knee and he or she may also notice swelling in the joint. Minor meniscus tears will generally heal on their own if given enough time and rest to heal, though little blood flow reaches the cartilage, so recovery time can be significant. More severe meniscus tears may require surgery to fully repair the injury.

Ligaments are bands of tissue that connect bones with other bones within a joint. When these ligaments become damaged — either they are torn, overstretched, or even ruptured entirely — clicking noises may be heard, and pain is almost certain to be felt in the affected area. The three major ligaments that can become damaged are the Anterior Cruciate Ligament, or ACL, which is on the outside of the knee; the Medial Collateral Ligament, or MCL, which is on the inside of the knee; and the Posterior Cruciate Ligament, or PCL, which is on the back of the knee. The ACL and MCL are more likely to become injured, and surgery may be necessary to fix the damaged tissue.

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