What Causes Stiff Knees?

Dan Cavallari

Arthritis, tendinitis, muscle injuries, and cartilage injuries are perhaps the most common causes of stiff knees, though other causes do exist. Muscles and tendons, as well as ligaments in the joint, can lead to stiff knees due to injury, overuse, or lack of conditioning. Arthritis can lead to stiffened knees as the cartilage and ligaments of the knee begin to break down and degrade. Most knee problems that lead to stiffness are not very serious conditions, though some issues that lead to stiffness can be quite serious and require further medical attention such as medications, surgery, or physical therapy.

A diagram of the knee.
A diagram of the knee.

Muscle stiffness can lead to stiffness in the knees, too. The muscles that attach to the bones near the knees can become strained or simply tight from overuse or lack of conditioning. A muscle strain occurs when the fibers that make up the muscle tear slightly, leading to pain. That pain and stiffness can radiate into the knees, and it can also cause stress on other parts of the knee. Icing and rest can help relieve the pain and stiffness, and after a few days, the pain should go away. If the pain and stiffness persist, it may be appropriate to visit a doctor.

Knee pain can be the result of stiff knees.
Knee pain can be the result of stiff knees.

Arthritis is a degenerative condition that commonly occurs in people as they age. The cartilage and ligaments in the knee begin to break down, causing the knee to move in ways it would not otherwise bend; tendons can become inflamed, leading to pain and stiff knees. There is no cure for arthritis, but pain management techniques can be used to reduce stiffness and pain. Treatments may include using topical ointments, anti-inflammatory medications, and painkillers, or participating in a regular workout routine and stretching regimen. More serious cases of arthritis may require a partial or complete knee replacement surgery, which can be a painful process with an extended recovery time.

Running can cause knee problems.
Running can cause knee problems.

Sometimes the kneecap can become displaced for a variety of reasons, leading to discomfort and stiff knees. Inflammation can cause the kneecap to become misaligned, as can other conditions such as bursitis, damaged cartilage, and direct trauma. A misaligned kneecap can lead to mild to intense pain, or it may simply cause stiff knees and discomfort. A visit to the doctor can help a patient find the best treatment options, as those treatments will change depending on the cause of the knee cap problem as well as the severity of the injury.

Regular stretching can slow down the degeneration of arthritis.
Regular stretching can slow down the degeneration of arthritis.
Overuse such as running too much can cause stiff knees.
Overuse such as running too much can cause stiff knees.

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Discussion Comments


@Perdido – I think it's possible. I had stiffness in my knee for a long time after getting injured in an accident, and even though it's been ten years since that happened, I still get sudden sharp pains when I move a certain way.

I don't know exactly what way that is, either. It just happens sometimes, and the pain is so great that it brings me down to the ground. However, it leaves just as quickly as it comes.


If you have stiff knees from an injury, is it possible to still have knee pain from that years later? I got hit on the knee with a baseball bat, and though it healed fully, I still have sharp pains in my knee every now and then. I'm wondering if this is related to the injury or if it is something else.


I had a stiff knee with pain after a car accident. My knee rammed hard into the back of the driver's seat, and I couldn't put all my weight on that leg for weeks.

The emergency room doctor wanted to send me to an orthopedic surgeon a month later, but by that time, I was significantly better, so I didn't go. It took about four months, but I finally got to where I could use the knee fully.

I think one thing that helped was the light exercise I did as soon as I was able. I did some Latin dancing that required a lot of knee bending, but I kept it light and easy. This kept my muscles from deteriorating.


I get stiff knee joints whenever the weather gets really cold. Some older people tell me that this is related to arthritis, but I'm only in my thirties, so I hate to believe that.

If a really cold front comes through the area, it becomes hard for me to walk normally. My knees get so stiff, and I do have stiffness in some other muscles, as well. I just kind of feel tight and creaky all over.

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