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Swelling in Knee

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Common causes of knee swelling, how to get a swollen knee diagnosis, and information on knee swelling treatment options.

According to the University of Michigan Guidelines for Clinical Care, one of the most common conditions affecting the knees is knee swelling, particularly knee swelling due to osteoarthritis. Knee swelling is when one knee appears to swell up and appear larger than the original knee.

Knee swelling is generally associated with pain and immobility and can be caused by both temporary conditions and a variety of illnesses/diseases and permanent injuries. Correct diagnosis is crucial for treatment and further prevention.

What Causes Knee Swelling?

"Swelling" is a blanket term to refer to an increase in the size of a part of your body. In the case of knee swelling, most visual swelling is caused by either inflammation (an immune system response that increases the size of your tissues and causes them to redden) or fluid buildup (fluid that gathers in a would or joint without draining). When the cause of knee swelling is fluid, it's known as knee effusion, or "water in the knee."

Water in the Knee/Knee Effusion

Contrary to popular belief, the fluid that builds up within the knee is not water. However, the type of fluid depends on the problem. For example, a common cause of water in the knee is gout. Gout is caused by high levels of uric acid.

Most knee effusion is caused by the development of a "bursa," or a fluid-filled sac. The sac fills with synovial fluid, which is a fluid designed to keep your joints lubricated.

Other types of knee effusion may be caused by blood buildup. Most often, blood buildup is the result of a specific injury.

For most patients, knee effusion tends to manifest itself in the same way regardless of the cause. That is why proper diagnosis is so important for treatment.

Common causes of knee effusion:

Arthritis – All forms of arthritis have the potential to cause knee effusion, with osteoarthritis being the most common and rheumatoid arthritis a close second.

Trauma – Knees can easily be damaged as a result of trauma. Trauma includes such conditions as ligament injury, meniscus injury, and patellar dislocation.
Gout – While gout is most common in the large toe, gout may also occur in the knee and can lead to both knee swelling and a burning sensation.
Infection – Many infections create knee effusion as well. Swelling in the knee may be caused by Lyme disease, Tuberculosis, and on rare occasions gonorrhea.
General Stress – Overuse of the knee can also lead to knee swelling, particularly if a great deal of pressure was placed on the knee.


On rare occasions, knee swelling may be caused by a tumor. There are over a dozen different tumors that lead to swollen knees, including:

  • Fibrous cortical defect
  • Ewing's sarcoma
  • Chondroblastoma
  • Osteosarcoma
  • Synovial sarcoma
  • Osteochondroma

Knee tumors are fairly rare and one of the least likely medical conditions to affect the knee. However, knee tumors do cause knee effusion, so they are likely to be tested by a doctor to ensure an accurate diagnosis.

How is Knee Effusion Diagnosed?

Generally, a doctor will go through your history and determine how or why the knee effusion occurred. Your personal history will help the physician rule out issues like trauma.

Also, the doctor will discuss your symptoms with you, along with what occurred before and during the knee swelling.

For example, if your knee appeared to simply "give out" on you, it may be an ACL tear. If you often use your knees repetitively while lifting, it may be the result of overuse.

Swollen knees will also be compared to the un-swollen knee to determine an accurate diagnosis. An ultrasound may also be used to diagnose knee effusion causes.

Are There Any Other Symptoms Associated With Knee Swelling?

Swelling in the knees rarely occurs on its own. Usually, it's accompanied by other symptoms that may disrupt your life. These include:

  • Knee Pain
  • Burning
  • Immobility/Stiffness
  • Redness
  • Popping Noises
  • Flexibility Issues
  • Trouble Standing

Each of these symptoms is important for both an accurate diagnosis and an accurate treatment.

Treating Knee Swelling

The proper treatment for knee swelling depends on the disorder. When the knee is badly injured or a tumor is present, the knee may require surgery. However, most swollen knees will be treated with one or more of the following:

Swollen Knee Treatments
Bracing – Knees that cause trouble standing or are at risk of re-injury may receive brace or orthotic support. This support will prevent further injury/overuse of the knee and reduce the likelihood of future swelling.
Removing Fluid – Because knee swelling tends to cause pain, doctors may decide to remove some of the fluid from within the knee to reduce the pressure on the nerves and potentially improve mobility. However, if the underlying cause of the swollen knee isn't treated, the fluid will likely come back.
Injections – Some doctors prefer to inject swollen knees with drugs that provide temporary relief. Both corticosteroids and hyaluronic acid provide some relief from knee joint pain and swelling.
Herbal Medicine – Several herbal medicines provide relief from knee pain. The two most common are chondroitin and glucosamine – both of which help nourish and lubricate joints and may be beneficial for those with osteoarthritis. Some herbal medicine enthusiasts also take linden flower and arnica.

Knee swelling prevention is also possible. Consuming nutrients that improve knee health can be incredibly beneficial for warding off issues like osteoarthritis. Weight loss can help as well, since obesity may lead to pressure on the knees.

It's also important to avoid repetitive motion, and respond to your body quickly – if you feel any light pain while don't ignore the pain and reduce pressure on your knee. Responding quickly can help you avoid future injury.

How to Reduce Swelling in the Knee At Home

In addition to natural treatments, there are a few strategies you can try to reduce knee swelling in your home. These include:

Home Remedies for Knee Swelling
Icing – Icing the knee will not treat any knee swelling issues, but it can reduce inflammation which should provide some temporary relief from knee pain.
Compression – Compression involves putting pressure on the knee with a knee brace. Knee braces may prevent further damage and pressure around the knee, and also warm the knee to reduce inflammation.
Elevation – Keeping your knee elevated also has the potential to reduce inflammation. It takes much of the pressure off your knee that occurs when you sit, stand, or lay down.
Rest – Simply keeping off of your knee can reduce knee pain when the cause of your knee pain is due to injury or overuse. Severe injury still requires treatment, but rest will prevent further damage.
Anti-inflammatory Medicine – Any anti-inflammatory agents can reduce knee swelling and pain. Ginger is one of the most common, as is Boswellia.

Should your symptoms appear to get worse while on these home remedies, or if you are concerned that your knee pain/knee swelling is not subsiding, it's a good idea to contact a doctor and have them check for a more serious problem. 






Next Article: How to Stop Arthritis


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