What Causes Knee Pain When Sitting?

Man holding his knee whilst sitting down
Posted by: Paul Dhaliwal Comments: 0

From working a desk job to enjoying games, movies, and other media, sitting for long periods of time has become a widely accepted social norm. Yet, did you know that prolonged sitting can negatively affect your knees and cause pain?

Knee pain from sitting is a fairly common phenomenon with a wide variety of potential causes — from poor positioning and posture to more serious underlying health conditions. Treatment and prevention of this pain require a mix of practicing better sitting habits and consulting with a healthcare professional.

In this article, we will tell you everything you need to know about knee pain while sitting, including why it happens and some of the possible causes behind it. Plus, keep reading to learn about your treatment options and the best preventative measures! 

The Way You Are Sitting May Be Causing Knee Pain

If you are experiencing knee pain while sitting, oftentimes this pain can be traced back to the act of sitting — but why and how? 

In general, there are three main reasons behind knee pain while sitting:

  • The chair or surface you are sitting on does not provide proper support to your legs and knees
  • The position you are sitting in is uncomfortable and/or strenuous on the knees
  • You have remained in a sitting position for too long

However, it is also important to note that knee pain can also indicate an underlying health condition, such as arthritis, which causes chronic joint inflammation (see “Underlying Knee Conditions” below for more information on possible health problems associated with knee pain). 

When it comes to the why and how sitting can result in knee pain, it has to do with the well-being of your muscles and joints.

Let’s quickly examine how each of the three reasons listed above causes knee pain: 

  1. Improper Support: The piece of furniture or the surface you are sitting on can have a major impact on whether or not you feel pain in your knees. If you are sitting too low to the ground, for example, your knees end up in a more strenuous bent position that can result in pain. As such, it is important to look for seats that have an ergonomic design and is intended to provide better support — especially if you will be sitting in this seat for 4 or more consecutive hours. 
  2. Bad Sitting Position: Many people sit with one leg crossed over the other, or even both legs crisscrossed. While these positions may feel more comfortable in the moment, they actually put a significant amount of strain on your knees by overstretching the muscles and ligaments that surround your knee. If you enjoy a crossed-leg sitting position, it is crucial to remain aware of your positioning and place your feet flat on the ground when you begin noticing pain.
  3. Sitting for Too Long: For anyone who sits for long periods of the day (6+ hours per day), the continuously bent position of your knees causes them to stiffen, causing your muscles to become sore and painful over time. Luckily, the solution to this problem is fairly straightforward — all you have to do is put a conscious effort into standing up and stretching your legs out more regularly when you know you will be stuck sitting for a long time. 

Can Prolonged Sitting Cause Damage to Your Knees?

If you are experiencing recurring pain in your knees when sitting, you may find yourself wondering whether there is any permanent damage being caused.

Prolonged sitting, such as sitting at a desk at work for 8 hours per day, is generally not considered enough to produce major long-term side effects. However, if a sedentary lifestyle persists outside of a seated work environment, this may have an impact on your overall health. 

In a 2013 meta-analysis of six different studies, researchers estimated that the all-cause mortality risk for adults sitting 10 or more hours per day was 34% higher than those sitting for less time. The analysis further reports that moderate to vigorous physical activity helps to lessen the “hazardous association.” 

As such, to avoid permanent or long-term damage to your knees from sitting, your main priority should be to get an adequate amount of exercise when you are not required to sit. 

Underlying Knee Conditions 

Sometimes, the pain you are feeling in your knees when you sit may actually be caused or worsened by an underlying health condition. 

While different health conditions result in different symptoms, the main sign of an underlying condition to watch out for is chronic, recurring pain. 

With this in mind, some of the most common underlying conditions that may cause knee pain while sitting include: 

  • Arthritis: Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis can occur in the knees. Along with a dull and recurring pain in your knees, additional symptoms can include joint stiffness, loss of mobility, and cracking or popping sounds. 
  • Tendinitis: Tendinitis refers to inflammation and irritation of the tendon. With three major hamstring tendons crossing the knee joint, the knees are especially vulnerable to tendinitis. Key symptoms to watch for with this condition include pain located above or below the knee cap, swelling, and constant pain. 
  • Patellofemoral Pain (PFP): Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (PFP) is more commonly known as “runner’s knee” and is characterized by pain at the front of the knee and around the kneecap. This type of pain is often aggravated by movements, such as walking or squatting, due to the bending of the knee in these activities. Thus, sitting with bent knees for a prolonged period can produce a similar effect. 
  • Injury: Many different types of injuries can occur in the knees, including torn ligaments, dislocations, sprains, strains, and fractures. Depending on the severity of the injury, it can produce a dull to sharp pain, not just when sitting but whenever you engage your knee at all. Always contact a health professional when you begin to feel a sharp pain in your knees, as these types of injuries should be treated as soon as possible to prevent further damage. 

Knee Pain When Sitting Symptoms

Though knee pain can sometimes indicate a more serious health condition, in many cases, sitting can be the main source of the pain as well. As we have covered, knee pain from sitting is most commonly caused by improper support, poor sitting posture and leg positioning, and prolonged sitting. 

Assuming your knee pain is caused solely by sitting and not by any underlying health conditions, there are a few key symptoms associated with this type of knee pain: 

  • Dull pain
  • Stiffness in the knee that goes away with movement
  • Numbness in the foot or lower calf from prolonged pressure on the nerves (typically this symptom is associated with people who sit with their one or both legs crossed)

However, since there are many similarities between these symptoms and the symptoms of underlying health conditions, you should never immediately assume the true cause without consulting with your medical provider first. 

Diagnosing Knee Pain 

Whenever you experience sharp or recurring pain in your knees, it is essential to seek a professional diagnosis to determine the cause and best treatment plan. 

Diagnostics of knee pain can vary and will often involve an assessment of your past medical history, as well as a physical examination. Additionally, before employing more advanced technologies, many healthcare professionals will perform a range of physical tests to assess your range of motion and pain level. 

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, knee pain can be diagnosed by:

  • X-Ray: X-rays produced a film image of your internal bones, organs, and tissues using invisible electromagnetic energy. These tests can be performed quickly and painlessly, allowing medical professionals to get a clearer view of what’s going on inside your knee. 
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): An MRI creates an image of the organs and structures in your body by using magnets and radiofrequency connected to a computer. MRIs are often employed when a medical professional suspects there may be damage or disease surrounding one of the ligaments or muscles in your knee. 
  • CT Scan: A CT scan is a type of combination technology that combines the capabilities of both an X-ray and computer imaging to produce a more detailed and whole image of a person’s body. A medical professional may call for this type of test when diagnosing your knee pain if they suspect the cause is an underlying health condition or injury affecting other areas of your body. 
  • Orthopedic testing: Various loading tests of your knee can be performed by your chiropractic, physiotherapist, or medical professional to assess and help diagnose the knee pain.

Treatment Of Knee Pain

Like with diagnosing knee pain, treating knee pain can vary pretty drastically depending on what the underlying cause of the pain is.

For pain resulting from prolonged sitting, helpful at-home treatments include:

  • Stretching: When you sit for long periods, your knees can end up stiff. Stretching before and after you have to sit for a long time can help alleviate some of this stiffness and the resulting pain. Two great stretches that help with knee pain include lunging hip flexors and hamstring stretches
  • Taking Movement Breaks: Along with stretching before and after you sit for long periods, it can also help to take movement breaks during your required sitting time. Simply standing up and walking around for a few minutes can help to alleviate your knee pain from sitting. 
  • POLICE: If the pain in your knees is persistent, following the POLICE method — Protection, Optimal Loading, Ice, Compression, Elevation — can help to alleviate inflammation, tension, and pain in your knees. For less serious causes of knee pain (like prolonged sitting or muscle/tendon/joint injury) this method of protecting/bracing your injury while gradually increasing the load on your knee as tolerated pain-free works great along with care from your physiotherapist or chiropractor.

For knee pain caused by an underlying health condition, treatment options can include: 

  • Physical Therapy or chiropractic: For injuries as well as some health conditions, physical therapy often plays a crucial role in treatment and recovery. With the help of a trained physical therapist, chiropractor, or similar professional, you can regain movement in your knees gradually without risking further injury or damage. 
  • Medications: There is a range of different medicines that can be prescribed to help treat the symptoms of knee pain. This can include mild painkillers, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, as well as steroid-based medications to help with conditions like arthritis. This is best used when combined with chiropractic or physiotherapy treatment.
  • Injections: Depending on the cause of your knee pain, injections may be used to help ease pain and increase mobility. The three main types of injections associated with knee pain treatment include corticosteroids, platelet-rich plasma (PRP), and hyaluronic acid. 
  • Surgery: Surgery is typically only suggested as a last resort treatment option when you have a moderate to severe injury to your knee. In most cases, medical professionals will present you with a choice between surgical intervention and nonsurgical rehabilitation, allowing you the freedom to decide what is best for your body and avoid time-consuming recovery periods when possible. 

Final Thoughts: How to Prevent Knee Pain When Sitting

Ideally, your goal should be to prevent knee pain before it has the chance to occur. 

When experiencing knee pain from sitting, three key ways to help prevent this pain include:

  • Mindfulness of Positioning: If you are someone who likes to sit with your legs crossed, one of the best things you can do to prevent knee pain is to practice better mindfulness of how your knees feel in those bent positions. While you do not have to avoid such positions entirely, staying aware of how your knees feel and changing positions when you begin to feel a dull ache or pain is the key to pain prevention. 
  • Chair Adjustments: For anyone experiencing knee pain in an office setting, the problem could very well be the height of your office chair. Sitting too low to the ground puts unnecessary pressure on your knees. When adjusting your height, you should bring it to a point where you can sit with your knees at roughly a 90-degree angle. 
  • Movement Breaks: We talked about movement breaks as a form of at-home treatment but they can also work excellently as a preventative measure as well. If you know you are prone to knee pain when sitting, planning to take a few 5 to 10-minute movement breaks during your can work wonders for preventing that pain. 

Most importantly, the best preventative measure you can take is to discuss your knee pain with your healthcare provider. Not only can this ensure there are no underlying health conditions behind your knee pain but it also enables you to get personalized prevention advice based on your lifestyle and habits.