Knee pain is a frequent source pain and frustration. Walking on flat ground or standing is generally pain-free, but the moment steps are attempted the pain flares and activities are hampered, while knee pain can occur with each step or happen suddenly and without warning while climbing steps. This is particularly problematic if you live in a home with stairs. There can be several possible conditions behind such pain, and treatment should depend on the root cause.
Causes of Knee Pain When Going Up Stairs
1. Knee Arthritis
Arthritis takes many forms and the most common are osteoarthritis and autoimmune arthritis. The tissues breakdown, cartilage wears thin or tears and inflammation further increases pain. Bone spurs can develop as well. Autoimmune arthritis results when the body attacks itself and damages the joints and their supporting tissues such as cartilage, ligaments and synovium. The joint becomes inflamed, painful and swelling is noted. Warmth when feeling the joint is common in both, but the autoimmune variety generally produces more redness, swelling and warmth.
Treatment: treatment is directed at reducing inflammation by using over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen, Tylenol or naproxen. Common sense home remedies such as rest, ice and elevation should be utilized. Physical activity must be reduced so that the pain is tolerable and further inflammation is avoided. Autoimmune arthritis requires consultation with a doctor who can discuss prescription medications for pain and to modify the immune system's attack on the body.
2. Patellar Tendinitis
Patellar tendinitis is very common in those who participate in jumping and running activities. The patellar tendon connects the kneecap (patella) to the shin bone (tibia). Any activity that involves extending the knee, running or jumping can result in pain with activities such as going up stairs. Pain can progress and interfere with sports and even normal daily activities such as walking.
Treatment: the treatment is geared at alleviating tension and inflammation of the patellar tendon. Reduce activities, ice, rest and elevate the affected leg on some pillows. Tight muscles, lack of physical conditioning or intense exercise can all trigger patellar tendinitis. Physical therapy may help to strengthen the muscles around the knee joint and increase flexibility.
3. Knee Bursitis
Bursa sacks are structures found around many joints that provide lubrication and cushioning for tendons and ligaments. Frequent and repetitive activity, kneeling, squatting or trauma can result in knee bursitis. Small breaks in the skin can allow an infection of a bursa to occur. Obesity and underlying arthritis are risk factors for developing knee bursitis. Symptoms and signs of knee bursitis include visible swelling, warmth, redness and tenderness. Increasing redness or red streaks extending upward from the bursa indicate infection.
Treatment: treatment is rest, ice and OTC anti-inflammatory medications. If an infection is present, antibiotics are required. If an infection does not resolve with antibiotics, surgical drainage may be required. Any exacerbating activity needs to be avoided. Those with occupations requiring kneeling should wear kneepads.
4. Runner's Knee
This condition plagues runners, but also affects those who perform repetitive activities such as walking or kneeling. The condition results from a multitude of different activities. Essentially any activity that involves extension and flexion of the knee can cause runner's knee. Symptoms include pain and swelling, tenderness over the kneecap and a deep dull ache around the knee. Popping can occur with minimal activity and is often exacerbated by going up stairs.
Treatment: treatment is reducing any repetitious activity, applying ice and elevating the knee. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen, Aleve and Tylenol are helpful. Consider compression with an ACE wrap or compression socks to provide support and relief of symptoms.
5. Chondromalacia Patella
The undersurface of the patella (kneecap) is covered with cartilage and prone to inflammation and damage. When this results, chondromalacia patella results in knee pain. This condition is more common in teenagers and females and also with overuse from sports. Muscle weakness can result in improper tracking of the patella and lead to increased damage to the cartilage. Symptoms are pain, aching, mild swelling and a grinding sensation with range of motion. Redness and impressive swelling are not part of this condition and should prompt a search for an alternative cause.
Treatment: treatment is directed at rest, ice and using OTC pain relievers. A supportive knee brace, knee sleeve or ACE wrap can help decrease pain and symptoms. Physical therapy can help if stiffness and muscle imbalance is present. Kinesiology may also help provide support and allow continued athletic performance in cases of mild symptoms. Backing off from painful activities and sporting activities is an important part of treating this condition.
6. Patellofemoral Pain
This condition results in pain in front of the knee and is commonly caused by overuse or any activity that repetitively stresses the knee joint and surrounding structures. Muscle imbalance can lead to improper tracking of the patella over the groove of the thigh bone (femur) and result in pain, inflammation and swelling. Flat feet, improper shoes or prolonged standing on a hard surface can all contribute to this painful knee problem. Pain typically comes and goes. Climbing stairs are particularly painful and stiffness is common after periods of sitting. Grinding or grating can sometimes be felt along with mild swelling due to patellofemoral problems.
Here is a video of home exercise program for patellofemoral pain.
When to See a Doctor
If any of the following occur, contact your doctor.
- Any sign of infection such as increasing redness or fever
- Severe unrelenting pain
- Numbness, loss of strength or tingling of the leg
- The foot or leg appears pain, cold or blue
- Symptoms are not improving with common-sense home treatment
- The pain becomes severe and increases in frequency