Knee conditions or injuries can cause pain in different parts of the knee. The location of pain can help determine which knee condition a person has. People may have pain above, below, behind, or at the kneecap or on the inner or outer knee.

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Many people experience knee pain at some point in their lifetime. Knee pain has several common causes, and pinpointing the location of a person’s knee pain can help determine its cause.

This article looks at different locations where knee pain can occur and what the pain may indicate.

The following illustration outlines the knee pain locations and their potential causes:

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Illustration designed by Jason Hoffman.

Another name for pain above the kneecap is anterior knee pain. Anterior knee pain may result from conditions such as:

  • patellar tendonitis
  • bursitis
  • arthritis
  • patellofemoral syndrome
  • fat pad impingement

Other common causes of anterior knee pain are:

  • Quadriceps tendinopathy (QF): QF often causes pain above a person’s kneecap, specifically in the tendons just above the kneecap. People with QF will feel varying degrees of knee pain, and the pain will often worsen with more activity. QF typically affects people who are physically active.
  • Quadriceps tendon rupture (QTR): QTR is a less common cause of knee pain than QF. It often affects middle-aged people who play sports. A person’s quadriceps consists of four muscles that meet just above the kneecap. If the quadriceps tendon tears or ruptures, a person will feel a tearing or popping sensation above the kneecap.

Read more about pain at the top of the knee.

Another name for outer knee pain is lateral knee pain. Injuries that can cause outer knee pain include:

  • Iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS): ITBS is the most common cause of lateral knee pain in runners and cyclists. ITBS causes people to develop inflammation when their Iliotibial band muscle rubs against bone. It can cause mild to intense pain in the outer thigh or knee.
  • Lateral meniscus tears: Lateral meniscus tears are common sports-related knee injuries. They occur when a person injures the tissue between the bones in their knee joint. A person with a meniscus tear will feel increasing pain, stiffness, and swelling and may have trouble moving their knee.
  • Lateral collateral ligament (LCL) injuries: The LCLs are on the outside of the knee, holding the knee bones together. A person with an LCL sprain will experience pain on the outside of their knee. They may also have swelling at the site of their injury.

Learn more about outer knee pain.

The following injuries can cause kneecap pain:

  • Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS): PFPS is a common cause of knee pain. People typically develop PFPS after vigorous physical activities that strain the knee. People with PFPS feel pain at the front of the knee and around or behind the kneecap.
  • Chondromalacia patella: Chondromalacia patella happens when cartilage on the underside of the kneecap breaks down. This may cause inflammation and pain in the bone underneath the cartilage.
  • Arthritis: Arthritis is a condition that causes joint inflammation. If a person has arthritis in their knees, they may feel pain in their kneecaps when moving or at rest.
  • Prepatellar bursitis (PB): Bursae are small, fluid-filled, cushion-like sacs between knee bones and body tissues. PB occurs when a person’s bursae become inflamed. People who spend a lot of time kneeling are more likely than others to develop PB pain in front of their kneecaps.
  • Bipartite patella (BP): Bipartite patella is a developmental irregularity that causes people’s kneecaps to split into two as they grow. People with BP do not usually feel any pain. However, the condition may cause people to feel kneecap pain after a knee injury or after playing sports.
  • Medial plica syndrome: Plica are folds in the tissue surrounding the knee joint. If a person’s plica become inflamed due to injury or other causes, they may feel pain below the kneecap.
  • Dislocated patella (kneecap): If a person experiences an injury that dislocates their patella, they will feel pain and swelling. People feel this pain toward the middle of the front of their kneecap. Their knee may also give way.

Doctors may also refer to inner knee pain as medial knee pain. Injuries that cause pain in this area include:

  • Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries: ACLs are on the sides of a person’s knees, holding their knee bones together. People often injure their ACLs while playing sports. People with ACL injuries have pain and swelling on the insides of the knees.
  • Medial collateral ligament (MCL) sprains: MCLs are also on the insides of the knees, holding the knee bones together. People with MCL sprains will experience swelling and pain on the insides of the knees. People often sprain their MCLs while skiing.
  • Medial meniscus tear: Medial meniscus tears are very common in athletes and military personnel. The medial meniscus acts as a shock absorber. A tear can cause increased pain, stiffness, and swelling in the inner kneecap.
  • Arthritis: People with arthritis may also experience inner knee pain.
  • Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD): Infants and adolescents who develop OCD in their joints commonly develop it in their knees. OCD occurs when small bone pieces separate inside the knee as a result of insufficient blood supply. People with OCD may have pain and swelling after playing sports or experiencing a knee injury.

Read more about inner knee pain.

Injuries that cause pain below the knee include:

  • Patellar tendonitis (PT): The patellar tendons connect the bottom of the kneecap to the top of the shinbone. PT is common in people who often take part in running or jumping activities. PT causes people’s patellar tendons to become inflamed, leading to pain below the kneecap.
  • Osgood-Schlatter disease: This disease is common in adolescents and often occurs during growth spurts. People with Osgood-Schlatter disease have inflammation below the knees and pain where the kneecap attaches to the shinbone.

Doctors may also refer to pain at the back of the knee as posterior knee pain. Injuries to the soft tissues and tendons are the most common causes of posterior knee pain. Neurological and vascular injuries occur less frequently.

These injuries may include:

  • Hamstring injury: A hamstring injury is a tear or strain in one or more muscles in the back of the thigh. These injuries are common in athletes and other active people.
  • Posterior cruciate ligament injury: This type of injury may result from trauma to the back of the knee.

Meniscus tears — a type of cartilage injury — may also occur. Making twisting motions while squatting or bending the leg may tear this area. These tears can cause pain in multiple locations.

Find out more about posterior knee pain.

Several knee conditions and injuries can cause pain in different areas of the knee.

Some types of knee pain may result from injury, but inherited conditions and overuse can also cause knee pain. People should seek professional advice and treatment for knee pain that does not get better over time or worsens with activity.