What Does It Mean If the Side of Your Kneecap Hurts?

Reviewed on 11/18/2022
Woman with knee pain being checked by a doctor
Common causes of pain in the knee include patellofemoral pain syndrome, iliotibial band syndrome, lateral collateral ligament injury, meniscal injury, anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, and osteoarthritis of the knee.

The knees are the largest joints in the body. They are made up of the lower end of the thighbone (femur), the upper end of the shinbone (tibia), and the kneecap (patella).

Most people experience knee pain at some point in their lives, including on the side of the kneecap.

7 Causes

The side of the kneecap can hurt on the outer (lateral) part of the knee or the inner (medial) part of the knee. Pain on the side of the kneecap can be caused by injury and other conditions. Common causes of pain in the knee include:

  • Patellofemoral pain syndrome 
    • A broad term that describes pain in the front of the knee and around the kneecap
    • Also called “runner's knee” or “jumper's knee”
    • Often caused by overuse, such as from vigorous physical activities that put repeated stress on the knee including running, squatting, and climbing stairs, or by sudden changes in activity such as increased frequency, duration, or intensity
    • Can also be caused by abnormal tracking of the kneecap in the trochlear groove (patellar malalignment)
  • Iliotibial band syndrome
    • The iliotibial band (IT band) is a thick band of fibrous tissue that runs from the hip to below the knee on the outside of the leg 
    • If the leg is bent and straightened frequently, it can cause soreness and inflammation in the IT band where it passes over the bottom of the thigh bone and meets the knee
    • A common condition in runners and cyclists
  • Lateral collateral ligament injury 
    • Caused by a blow to the inside of the knee that stretches the outside (lateral side) of the knee and injures the ligament
  • Meniscal injury 
    • Damage to the meniscal cartilages inside the knee
    • Meniscus injuries are common in sports where you change direction suddenly, such as in football, basketball, and skiing, or in jobs that involve lifting and twisting
    • Wear and tear from aging can also cause meniscus tears without injury
  • Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury 
    • Overstretching or tearing the ligament that runs across the knee from the thigh to the shin bone
    • The injury can occur suddenly if the knee is twisted or rotated, and commonly occurs in sports
  • Osteoarthritis of the knee 
    • A common cause of knee pain
    • Occurs due to wear and tear over time of the cartilage that lines the knee joint 
    • Affects people more commonly as they age
  • Pain in the side of the kneecap is more common in people who:
    • Are distance runners
    • Inexperienced runners or runners who suddenly increase distance and frequency 
    • Cyclists
    • Have an injury that pushes the knee outwards (away from your other leg)
    • Do activities that involve twisting the knees or squatting
    • Are "knock-kneed" or "bow-legged"
    • Older

What Are Symptoms of Pain in the Side of the Kneecap?

Symptoms that accompany pain in the side of the kneecap can vary depending on condition and may include: 

  • Dull, aching pain in the front of the knee
  • Pain during activities that bend the knee, such as running, jumping, stair climbing, or squatting
  • Knee stiffness
  • Knee swelling 
  • Popping or crackling sounds in the knee 
  • Knee may click or lock
  • Pain while walking
  • Pain when sitting with knees bent
  • Feeling as if the knee may give way
  • “Pins and needles” feeling in the foot

How Is Pain in the Side of the Kneecap Diagnosed?

The cause of pain in the side of the kneecap is diagnosed with a patient history, which may include questions about sports you’re involved in or recent injuries you experienced, along with a physical examination. The doctor may also ask you to squat, jump, or lunge and to walk back and forth in to examine your gait. 

Tests used to help diagnosed the cause or extent of the knee pain may include: 

What Is the Treatment for Pain in the Side of the Kneecap?

Treatment for pain in the side of the kneecap depends on the cause. 

For many injuries, when the injury first occurs, use the RICE method: 

  • Rest: keep weight off the leg
  • Ice: to decrease pain, swelling, and redness
    • If an injury is iced immediately, it may prevent some inflammation
    • Use an ice pack or ice wrapped in a towel
    • Apply crushed ice for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, several times daily
  • Compression: to prevent inflammation
    • Use elastic wraps such as Ace bandages
    • Do not wrap too tightly
  • Elevation: prop up the affected leg to help reduce fluid buildup in the injured tissue
    • Try to raise the knee above the level of the heart
  • Other home remedies for knee injuries may include: 
    • Activity changes
      • Stop activities or sports that cause pain in the knee 
      • Switch to low-impact activities such as swimming, using an elliptical machine, or cycling
  • Lose weight if overweight
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain and swelling
  • Modifying your environment 
    • People with osteoarthritis, a degenerative condition, may need to modify their environment to reduce stress on the knees, such as:
      • Bath aids
      • Chair and bed raisers
      • Grab rails 
      • Additional stair rails
  • Other treatments for knee injuries may include:
    • Steroid injections
    • Physical therapy
      • Range of motion
      • Strength
      • Endurance
      • Stretching
  • Occupational therapy
  • Orthotics (shoe inserts)
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) 

Surgery for conditions that cause pain in the kneecap is usually a treatment of last resort, if the injury or condition does not respond to conservative measures. Surgery may be performed arthroscopically in which a small keyhole incision is made and the problem in the knee is fixed. In severe cases of osteoarthritis, a partial or total knee replacement may be needed. 

Reviewed on 11/18/2022

Image source: iStock Images