Knee joints are under a lot of physical stress each day. It is very common to experience pain in one or both knees due to normal wear and tear, physical activity, or injury. Often, if a person has a knee injury or strain, the pain can feel as though it is burning.
Burning knee pain can occur in many places in the knee. For many people, the fronts and backs of the knees are the most common spots to feel a burning sensation. Sometimes, however, the sides of the knees can also feel as though they are burning.
A burning sensation in any part of the knee typically indicates that there is a larger problem that may require investigation and treatment.
This article explores some common causes of burning pain in the knee, the typical treatments for them, and when to see a doctor.
The location of the burning knee pain can often give some clues as to what is causing it. The sections below list some causes of location-specific knee pain.
Front of the knee
Burning pain in the front of the knee is often due to injuries such as:
Side of the knee
If a person has burning pain on the side of the knee, it could be due to iliotibial band syndrome or pes anserine bursitis.
Behind the knee
Burning pain behind the knee may be due to:
- a ligament tear
- a cartilage tear
- Baker’s cyst
The following sections detail some potential causes of burning knee pain and how to treat them.
1. Knee cartilage tear
Knee cartilage, or meniscus, helps cushion the joint during physical activities such as walking, running, and jumping. If a person sustains a blunt force injury to this area or twists it forcefully, it can tear the knee cartilage. This is painful and can feel like burning.
There are various treatment options for a knee cartilage tear. Often, the first steps in treatment involve taking pain relief drugs such as ibuprofen and trying muscle strengthening workouts.
If the knee cartilage does not improve, a doctor or healthcare team may recommend steroid injections in the knee or surgical options such as:
- knee debridement, which involves removing any loose cartilage and flushing the area with saline
- knee chondroplasty, which involves smoothing the cartilage to reduce friction
- autologous chondrocyte implantation, which involves removing and cultivating a piece of cartilage so that it can eventually return to the person’s knee and regrow
- osteochondral autograft transplantation, which involves taking cartilage from a non-weight bearing area to the knee
2. Knee ligament tear
Knee ligament tears often occur due to blunt force trauma to the outside of the knee. People who play hockey, football, or other contact sports are at greater risk of tearing or pulling their knee ligaments.
Health professionals often classify ligament tears by how severe they are. A partial tear may require less treatment than a severe tear. Some treatment options for partial tears include:
- using protective knee braces
- trying muscle strengthening activities
- reducing activities that could cause further damage
If the tear is very severe or does not improve, a doctor may recommend surgical options.
3. Runner’s knee, or chondromalacia
Runner’s knee, also known as chondromalacia, occurs as a result of overuse of the knee joint. It is particularly common among runners and other people who put consistent pressure and stress on their knees.
Chondromalacia occurs when the knee cartilage deteriorates, providing less cushioning to the joint.
The first steps in treatment often involve therapies to help reduce pain and swelling and allow the knee to heal. Some treatments include:
- taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medications
- applying an ice pack to reduce the swelling
- aligning the kneecap with a brace, kneecap-tracking sleeve, or tape
- resting the knee joint
If the knee does not improve, a healthcare team may recommend arthroscopic surgery. This involves smoothing the cartilage to allow it to heal better.
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Osteoarthritis can affect nearly any joint, but it is most common in the hands, hips, spine, and knees.
Osteoarthritis is characterized by the wearing down of the protective cartilage in the joints. It is not possible to reverse osteoarthritis, so it may eventually require a joint replacement.
Some common treatments for osteoarthritis include:
- taking OTC pain and swelling medication
- receiving cortisone injections
- trying occupational or physical therapies
- receiving lubricant injections
5. Patellar tendinitis
Patellar tendinitis is an overuse injury of the tendon that connects the kneecap to the shin. It can cause burning and pain in the front of the knee.
There are several potential treatment steps a person can take to treat patellar tendinitis, including:
- applying an ice pack to reduce the swelling
- resting from running and jumping
- trying exercises that focus on the upper leg muscles
- taking OTC pain medications
- wearing a patellar tendon strap, which takes pressure off the tendon
- stretching to lengthen the knee muscle-tendon unit
If these therapies do not work, a doctor may recommend more invasive therapies, such as a platelet-rich plasma injection or oscillating needle procedure.
6. Iliotibial band syndrome
Iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) often affects runners. It occurs when the connective tissue along the length of the thigh rubs against the outside of the knee during running and other physical activities.
ITBS can feel like burning when the band rubs against the side of the knee.
There is no formal treatment for ITBS. However, people with this condition often take some of the following steps:
- resting from running and trying cross training instead
- massaging the iliotibial band, quads, and glutes
- increasing core, glutes, and hip strength
- trying physical therapy
- taking NSAIDs
- applying an ice pack
- receiving local steroid injections, if other options are not effective
PFPS occurs in the front of the knee. It often starts as mild pain and gradually builds up. It can occur in one or both knees. It is usually worse during physical activities.
Some general treatment options for PFPS include:
- taking OTC medications
- wearing supportive braces
- resting, such as avoiding stairs and kneeling
- trying exercises for the hips, quads, and hamstrings
In more severe cases, a doctor may recommend arthroscopic surgery, which involves removing and smoothing damaged cartilage.
In some cases, a person may receive treatment shortly after sustaining a knee injury. In others, a person may first try to deal with the pain they experience, only seeing their doctor when it becomes severe.
For overuse injuries, the best solution is often to rest, apply an ice pack, and focus on muscle building activities that do not put strain on the knees. However, if the pain continues to build despite resting, a person should talk to their doctor about their symptoms.
They may be able to recommend additional therapies, such as physical or occupational therapy. In severe cases, they may even recommend surgical options.
Several things can give rise to burning knee pain. Some injuries are acute and can start causing pain immediately, while others are overuse-related and will build up gradually.
In many cases, taking OTC pain relievers, applying an ice pack, and resting are enough to help prevent further injury and pain. If the pain does not go away or gets worse, however, a doctor may suggest surgery or more invasive treatment options.