I was at the gym the other day, and I had a friend approach me (because he knows I’m a physical therapist), and he asked “why does my knee feel like it is catching when I walk?” I went on to explain the possible causes and what steps he should take about fixing it.
This seems to be a common issue people experience with their knee, so I wanted to discuss why your knee is “catching” and what you can do about it.
People often describe their knee catching or locking while straightening their leg. This is often felt when they are walking, standing up, or going up/down stairs. I am going to discuss the main cause of this issue, and what you can do about it.
The main cause of this catching/locking sensation is a meniscal tear.
You may be asking yourself what is a meniscus?
In between your knee joint there are “C” shaped pieces of cartilage that act as shock absorbers for your knee as you walk, run, and jump.
These “C” shaped cartilages are called your meniscus. They are designed to protect the knee and prevent damage from all the repetitive shock our knees take. Our meniscus can easily get injured due to all the stresses we place on our knee during daily activities such as walking, running, twisting, and jumping. These injuries can cause a “tear” in the meniscal cartilage.
How do you know if you injured your meniscus?
The main symptoms are:
- Catching or locking sensation felt in the knee while walking
- Swelling around the knee
- Pain when straightening or twisting the knee
- Difficulty straightening the knee
- You may have heard a “popping” sound when the injury occurred
How did I tear my meniscus?
Some people don’t understand how they possibly injured their meniscus. People often claim that they didn’t do anything physical to tear their meniscus or that they don’t play sports. This is common, you may or may not have felt pain or heard a sound when you injured your meniscus. The main cause of injury is twisting of the leg while the foot is planted on the ground. This injury is very common in soccer or basketball players, because they are often required to make quick turns or pivots on their foot.
For those who do not participate in sports, this same injury can occur when exiting your car or getting out of bed. You are required to twist out of the vehicle with your one foot planted on the ground.
Why am I feeling the catching while walking?
The catching/locking sensation is a normal symptom to be experiencing with a meniscal injury, and this is due to the tear in the cartilage. Normally the cartilage is smooth and flat, which allows the knee to move smoothly as you walk, but with a meniscal tear the cartilage is rough and may have a flap or piece sticking up making the bone catch on the cartilage.
As you walk, your knee bends and straightens with a nice smooth transition. However with a meniscal tear, the normal knee mechanics are interrupted due to the tear causing an uneven rough surface. The knee “catching” is simply due to the meniscus not being smooth like usual.
What can I do about it?
This can be a quite frustrating injury for people to deal with, because they often feel that their knee will get better over time on its own. This depends on the type of meniscal tear and the extent of the tear. Some minor tears can be left alone and managed with physical therapy, knee braces, strengthening/stretching exercises. However serious tears may require surgery.
Resting the knee. I advise people to avoid putting much pressure on the leg for the first few days, at-least until the swelling goes down. Avoid running, jumping, squatting, twisting, or any movements that cause pain.
Ice. Use Ice to get the inflammation and swelling under control. Ice every few hours for 15-20 minutes at a time.
Knee brace. If you still need to move around due to your job or other requirements, you can wear a knee brace to help support the leg and prevent any more damage being done to the knee. I will post a link to the knee brace I often recommend to my patients in my clinic.
Another option is stem cell or PRP injections. These injections are very promising for meniscal tears, and can actually help heal the tear. Consult with your physician on possibly receiving these injections.
Physical therapy. I recommend seeing a physical therapist who can evaluate your knee, and determine if you indeed have a meniscus tear. The physical therapist can go over your options, and design a plan of care to get you back to enjoying life as fast as possible!
How can I Prevent another injury?
It is very important to understand proper body mechanics to prevent re-injury or a new injury from occurring. The knee is very susceptible to injury due to the biomechanics of the knee joint only allowing 2 motions (bending/straightening). The knee does NOT like to turn, twist, or laterally bend, but most movements we do throughout the day require us to turn, twist, and bend. So it is important to consider the stresses you are placing on your knee during these positions. Be cautious of the amount of twist and torque you are placing on the knee, because other injuries can occur like an ACL, PCL, MCL or LCL tear. Remember to maintain a proper bodyweight, exercise, and eat healthy foods to reduce the risk of injury and to keep your body functioning as well as it can.
Here is the knee brace I promised to link. Give it a try, I have heard great things from all my patients with meniscal injuries about how well it supports, stabilizes, and reduces their knee pain during the day.