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Stabbing Or Sharp Knee Pain That Comes and Goes

Date: May 13, 2022

People are often stopped in their tracks by sharp knee pain. A knee bone or the surrounding nerve structures may be to blame for this symptom. Another cause of sharp knee pain is damage to the soft tissues around the joint itself.

Sharp knee pain is usually short-lived, occurring only when you do a certain movement and then subsiding as soon as you stop. It's possible that the severe stabbing or sharp knee pain in or around the knee will continue, but it's more likely that it will either entirely disappear or fade away, leaving behind some kind of residual soreness.

Knee problems, such as soft tissue damage or inflammation, can cause discomfort in the knee joint when localized. If it is accompanied by shooting pain down the leg, it usually signals a neurological problem in the lower back or the knee.

There are several causes of sharp knee pain, including:

  • Torn Knee Cartilage (the knee joint's particular cushioning)
  • Bursitis is caused at the knee joint by inflammation of the anti-friction sac
  • Knee Arthritis: Worn-out Knees
  • Loose Body: Bone Fragment Floating in Joint:
  • Fracture: Brocken bone
  • Nerve irritation

It is essential to understand the most prevalent reasons for intense knee pain, how they manifest, and what you can do to determine what's wrong with your knee. These causes of severe stabbing pain in the knee are next examined.

1. Injuries to the Soft Tissues

The most prevalent cause of sharp knee pain is an injury to the knee's soft tissues. When the knee bursa is inflamed or the knee cartilage is damaged, stabbing or sharp knee pain usually occurs.

2. Cartilage Tears in the Knee

A doctor checking a patient to see if there's any torn ligaments

Knee discomfort can be caused by anything lodged in the joint. Each knee bone has a thick layer of cartilage covering it, which acts as a spacer between the joints, preventing friction while the knee flexes. This allows for pain-free movement and if there are tears in your cartilage then this will cause knee pain.

During running and jumping, the knee cartilage acts as a shock absorber to lessen the impact on the knee joint itself. Small fragments of this knee cartilage can break off and become lodged in the joint.

Alternatively, this can occur in one of two ways:

  • Cartilage Fragment: It is possible that a little fragment of cartilage has broken away from the central mass of the meniscus and is now floating in the knee joint.
  • Bucket Handle Tear: A partial tear in the cartilage results in a loose flap that is partially linked to the meniscus, known as a "bucket handle tear." Occasionally, this flap gets caught in the joint and can't be moved.

Stabbing pain and locking of the knee joint can occur when loose cartilage gets lodged and cannot be removed. In most cases, the discomfort lessens after a few seconds of wriggling the knee about, but it can take a short while for this to happen.

3. Bursitis in the Knees

Knee bursitis, which can affect any knee area, is another common cause of excruciating pain in the knee. Knee bursa are fluid-filled sacs that sit between soft tissues and bone to minimize friction and pressure on the knee structures.

An irritated bursa that is then squished can cause excruciating pain in the knee.

The bursa impacted by the pain is easy to identify by its position. In such a case, the sharp stabbing pain could be coming from:

  • Knee Cap: Prepatellar bursitis or housemaid's knee, as it's more often known
  • Back of the Knee: It most likely is a Baker Cist.
  • The inner side of the knee: Pes Anserine bursitis often produces this pain.
  • The outer side of the knee: common among runners because of iliotibial bursitis.

4. Bones issues

Several bone issues can cause severe knee discomfort. The knee comprises three bones, each connecting to a different joint.

The thighbone, commonly known as the femur, connects the hip to the knee.

The tibia, or shinbone, forms the bond between the knee and ankle.

The kneecap, scientifically referred to as the patella, is a small bone placed in front of the knee, sitting on the knee joint as the knee flexes and extends.

5. Injuries to Your Joints

A man experiencing sharp knee pain

There may be a problem with the knee joint if sharp pain is felt. If the cartilage is damaged, either via wear and tear or an injury, it can produce osteophytes, tiny lumps of bone that protrude from the bone.

The bones are exposed because there is no cartilage to cushion and protect these osteophytes. Typically, this results in arthritis.

The osteophytes become painfully irritated and irritated when the knee is moved. Sharp, stabbing pain occurs when one bends or twists their knee, placing pressure on the osteophytes, common during sports or other activities involving heavy lifting or twisting the knee.

If you move the knee into a new position and take the pressure off the osteophytes, the intense pain may disappear, but a dull ache may remain. It's not uncommon for people with knee discomfort to be able to walk normally until they put additional strain on the joint, such as when crouching or twisting or running, or going up and downstairs.

If there is an increase in sharp knee pain as you ascend, there's more likely a problem with tibiofemoral joints, whereas if there is more pain while descending, then there is a problem with kneecaps.

6. Loose body

If something gets trapped in the knee joint as it moves, it can cause a sharp discomfort in the knee joint. There are a number of reasons why a microscopic bone fragment can become lodged in one's body.

Perhaps a small piece of cartilage has torn away from the meniscus. The joint capsule may contain one or more of these tiny fragments, referred to as loose bodies. As a result, it can produce acute knee discomfort and possibly lock the knee joint.

The pain usually diminishes as soon as it gets out of the way, and normal knee movement returns. Intermittent pain is more common in the case of a loose body than persistent pain.

Even though it won't happen every time you engage in a particular activity, it is likely to surprise you when you least expect it.

7. Knee fractures

Severe, sudden, and unremitting knee pain that appears to have started due to an injury may signal a fracture of the knee bone.

With a fractured bone, there is usually a noticeable deformity and swelling. When bones shift even a small amount, they can cause intense, stabbing pain in the knee because shattered bone pieces rub against each other.

There is a lot of power required to break one of the knee bones, so you know something is amiss right quickly.

8. Nerve Issues

An issue can also cause discomfort with one or more nerves that pass from the spine down to and through the lower extremities.

Our nerves are like power lines that crisscross our bodies. Several nerves in the leg originate in the lower spine and branch out to various leg areas.

These nerve fibers carry signals about pressure, pain, and temperature as they travel from the brain and spinal cord to the muscles.

Squeezing or irritation of nerves can cause intense, stabbing pain. When a nerve is trapped, it can cause localized pain or migrate along the nerve's route and feel more like a shooting pain.

Pins and needles, numbness, or even muscle weakness, may accompany the severe pain in some instances.

A nerve's squeezing or trapping might be caused by an osteophyte, a very tight muscle, or a bulging disc in the spine. Swelling-related inflammatory substances can also irritate the nerve, causing pain.

As a result, the following conditions may result in intense knee pain:

  • Soft tissue injury: causes swelling; the nerve is irritated by inflammatory chemicals.
  • Osteophytes in knees: trapping of nerves, e.g., rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Osteophytes in the Spine: Typically, spinal stenosis traps the nerve in the lower back.
  • Spine inflammation, e.g., Lower back disc bulging or herniation, puts pressure on and irritates a nerve in that area.

In summary, sharp pain in the knees that comes and goes is felt when one is engaged in particular activities such as walking, running, climbing, bending, and resting.

Strenuous Activity & Sharp Knee Pain

A guy suffers from sharp knee when he gets up to walk

If you hike or are an active person that uses your knees, then you may have felt sharp knee pain from time to time. Strenuous activity can cause knee pain because it can put extra stress on the joints and muscles, which can lead to inflammation and pain. In many cases, wearing a compressive brace can help with this pain. If it persists then have your doctor examine your knee.

Knee Pain That Grows Worse When You Bend It:

If your knee pain gets worse when you bend it, you may have arthritis or a cartilage tear in your knee joint. A lower back issue could be at blame if you have pain when bending over to put your shoes on.

Intense Knee Pain When Standing:

 Arthritis may be to blame if the pain is more intense when standing still but subsides when moving. If your knee pain worsens while you exercise, you may have a mechanical issue, such as a cartilage tear or lower back discomfort transferred from the knee.

Sharp knee pain when twisting.

It indicates that something is getting stuck in the joint. It can be a loose body or a flap of torn cartilage. It may also indicate instability due to sprain or tear.

Damage to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is the most common cause of knee pain during kicking.

Bursitis, or knee bursitis, can cause intense needle-like discomfort in the knee when squatting. Bursitis is commonly characterized by a squishy orange-colored enlargement of the affected joint.

Knee Pain When Climbing Stairs:

If you have sharp knee pain when climbing stairs, it is likely due to a problem with the knee joint (tibiofemoral joint). However, if the pain is worse when going downstairs, it is most likely due to a problem with the knee cap.

Running-related knee pain is more commonly described as an aching, throbbing sensation than as a stabbing one. When you experience sharp knee pain when running, it usually means that something has been squished in the joint.

Damage to the medial collateral ligament or medial meniscus is the most common cause of sharp knee pain that radiates from the inner side of the leg. Knee pain can occur immediately after an accident, usually due to a twisted knee, but it can also persist for some time while the knee recovers.

Osteoarthritis sufferers sometimes experience sharp knee pain when sitting for long periods, such as 20-30 minutes. You may have arthritis if your knee pain subsides after a few minutes of action.

Relentless Sharp Pain in the Knee:

A broken bone in the knee or something more serious is usually the cause of unrelenting sharp pain in the knee. It's worth it to see a doctor.

The most likely cause of sudden, intense shooting pain in the knee while resting is nerve irritation, although it could also be arthritis or a knee fracture.

Stabbing or Burning Pain in Knee:

If you have pain that feels like a dagger stabbing into your knee, or if you experience a burning sensation, it is likely that your nerves are irritated or that an osteophyte has been lodged in the joint.


A doctor examining a patients knee pain

What causes knee discomfort has an impact on how it is treated.

For broken bones and fractures

  • A medical professional will need to examine your knee. A cast or splint may be necessary to keep the knee in place while it heals.
  • Surgery, a splint, and physical therapy may be required for more severe fractures.

Gout, bursitis, tendinitis, and runner's knee

  • For disorders that cause redness, swelling, and dull pain, resting the joint is the first step in therapy. To aid in the healing process, elevate and keep your joint elevated. Use ice to reduce swelling in the knee.
  • NSAIDs like ibuprofen may be prescribed or recommended by your doctor. There are various methods for reducing pain and discomfort, including knee braces and physical therapy.
  • If you're taking medication for gout, your diet may need to be adjusted.

Ligament, joint, and cartilage tears

  • Your doctor will need to address knee ligament, cartilage, and joint tears.
  • Your doctor will let you know if your treatment will involve physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medication or if you will require surgery to heal the injury.
  • Knee surgery recovery might be lengthy. Returning to normal activities can take anything from six months to a year.

For those with Osteoarthritis (OA)

  • OA is a long-term ailment. Even if it isn't reversible, you can control its symptoms. One or more of the following may be used to treat OA:
  • NSAIDs and other pain relievers, such as knee braces and TENs units, are examples of physical therapy aids.
  • OA symptoms can be improved by making dietary and exercise changes and stopping smoking.
  • Knee arthritis pain can be managed by administering corticosteroid injections as well. If you have osteoarthritis in your knee, a total knee replacement may be the best option.
Sharp stabbing pain in knee
About Dr. Sean Ormond
Dr. Sean Ormond in black medical uniform and black fog background
Dr. Sean Ormond is dual board-certified in Anesthesiology and Interventional Pain Management. He completed his anesthesia residency at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio where he served as Chief Resident, followed by an interventional pain management fellowship at Rush University in Chicago, IL. Following fellowship, Dr. Ormond moved to Phoenix and has been practicing in the Valley for a few years before deciding to start his own practice.