Knee Clicking While Running? Here's What Your Body's Trying to Tell You

Knee clicking while running could be harmless or a sign of a more serious problem.
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Knee clicking while running is a common complaint — but that doesn't mean you should ignore it. Especially when paired with pain, it's important to figure out what's causing the sensation and how to best treat it, so you can get back to running creak-free.

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The first thing you need to ask yourself: Does your knee only click occasionally, without pain? Or does it happen frequently with pain and swelling? These are important factors to consider when figuring out your plan of action.

According to March 2018 research in ​Clinics in Orthopedic Surgery,​ occasional, non-painful knee clicking is often due to a buildup of air in the joint fluid and shouldn't necessarily be a cause for concern.

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"Non-painful knee clicking is quite normal and common," physical therapist and board-certified sports specialist Leada Malek, DPT, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Tiny air bubbles within the joint can burst as you move the joint and this can make a sound."

More frequent clicking — still without pain — could indicate some issues need to be addressed to avoid injury. "Light clicking behind the kneecap may be related to joint surface changes or just exacerbated by extra tightness of surrounding tissues," Malek says.

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If you experience knee clicking while running ​and​ pain and swelling, it's a sign there's something going on within your knee that needs to be addressed by a doctor. Below are the top four reasons for knee clicking while running and what you can do about it.

Warning

"Catching, locking, painful pops, getting stuck or having pain may be indicative of something intra-articular — meaning within the joint, such as a meniscus tear or loose bodies — and should be assessed by a professional,” Malek says.

1. You Have a Muscle Imbalance or Weakness

A muscle imbalance or weakness is a common cause of knee clicking while running, exercise physiologist Todd Buckingham, PhD, tells LIVESTRONG.com. It's so common among runners that it's called "runner's knee," or, the more technical term, patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS).

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Several factors contribute to runner's knee; however, one of the main causes is muscle weakness, especially of the quadricep muscle, per the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS). When the quadriceps muscle is weak, it can't move the kneecap correctly, resulting in damage to the cartilage and clicking, pain and swelling.

Another condition called iliotibial band syndrome, or IT band syndrome, can also cause knee clicking while running. With this condition, Buckingham says you'll often feel pain on the outside of your knee.

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A May 2020 study in the​ Journal of Orthopedic Surgery and Research​ shows that strengthening exercises, particularly focusing on the glutes, is helpful in treating IT band syndrome.

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“Strengthening the leg muscles, particularly those around the knee, is important to minimize the risk of developing one of these overuse injuries,” Buckingham says. He recommends doing the following three exercises.

1. Banded Walk

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Resistance Band Workout
Region Lower Body
  1. Loop a mini resistance band around your legs below your knees. The band should be short enough that when taking a small step, it provides resistance.
  2. Bend your knees and have your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Take a small step to your right with your right foot, then follow that with a small step to the right with your left foot, keeping tension in the band.
  4. Repeat for 20 steps in each direction.
  5. Repeat the exercise, but this time, keep your knees straight, feeling the engagement from the outer glute muscles.
  6. Next, bend your knees and take a small step forward with your right foot, then follow that with a small step forward with your left foot, keeping your feet the same width and maintaining tension in the band.
  7. Repeat 20 steps forward and 20 steps backward.
  8. Repeat the exercise but keeping the knees straight, feeling the engagement of the lateral (side) glute muscles. Your torso should remain upright and stable while the leg movement to the side is isolated at the hip.

Tip

As you gain strength, you can move the band lower on your legs until you reach your ankles.

2. Glute Bridge

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core and Lower Body
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  2. Engage you abs as if bracing for someone to punch you in the stomach.
  3. Squeeze your glutes and lift your hips off the floor, actively pressing your heels into the ground to help prevent lower back pain.
  4. Don't lift so high that you arch your back: Your body should form a straight line from your knees through your hips down to your shoulders, which are in contact with the ground.
  5. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds before lowering your hips and butt back to the floor.
  6. Do 2 sets of 30.

Tip

To make the glute bridge more challenging, add a leg lift. Before dropping your hips to the floor, lift one foot off the ground and extend your leg out at a 45-degree angle. Keep a straight line from your foot to your knee to your hips to your shoulders, while keeping your hips level. Set the foot down, lower to the ground, then repeat with the opposite leg.

3. Single-Leg Balance

JW Player placeholder image
Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core and Lower Body
  1. Stand with both feet flat on the floor, slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Place 3 water bottles (or whatever you might have around the house) on the ground as follows: one to the left, one straight in front of you, and one to the right.
  3. Lift your right foot off the ground and balance on your left foot.
  4. While balancing on your left foot, bend your knee and press your hips back slightly to fold forward and touch the bottle to your left with one hand.
  5. Return to your starting position, then do the same thing but touch the bottle straight in front of you with one hand.
  6. Return to the starting position, bend over, and touch the bottle to your right, then return to the starting position.
  7. Repeat this on your left foot.
  8. Do this 3 to 5 times on each side.

2. Your Muscles Are Tight

In addition to improving muscle strength, you may also need to work on flexibility to alleviate knee clicking while running, according to AAOS.

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Malek says that while strength training is usually the most important way to address the muscle imbalances that lead to IT band syndrome, adding stretches for this condition can help also. "Addressing any flexibility issues around the IT band may help reduce symptoms. Of course, it always depends on the individual," she says.

Buckingham recommends stretching both the quads and the IT band. Per a December 2021 study in the Journal of Clinical Orthopedics and Trauma, hamstring stretches are also effective in decreasing anterior (front) knee pain in runners.

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Fix It

Improve your flexibility with the three stretches below that target the muscles surrounding your knee and hip joint. The combination of strengthening and stretches helps to address the muscle imbalances that can cause knee clicking while running.

1. Quad Stretch

JW Player placeholder image
Type Flexibility
Body Part Legs
  1. Stand with both feet flat on the floor, slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Lift the right foot off the ground, bending at the knee and moving the right heel toward your butt.
  3. Hold the right foot in your right hand and gently stretch the front of your quad.
  4. Hold for 15 seconds.
  5. Repeat on the other side.
  6. Perform each stretch 3 to 5 times on each side.

2. IT Band Stretch

JW Player placeholder image
Type Flexibility
Body Part Butt and Legs
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  2. Lift your right leg and place the outside of your right ankle on your left knee.
  3. Let your legs fall to the right side, using your right leg to gently pull them down, until you feel a stretch along the outside of your left leg.
  4. Keep your shoulders square on the floor and avoid rotating your torso.
  5. Hold for 30 seconds.
  6. Do this 5 times.
  7. Switch sides and perform the stretch 5 times on the other side.

3. Hamstring Stretch

JW Player placeholder image
Type Flexibility
Body Part Legs
  1. Lie down on your back with your legs extended straight.
  2. Raise your right leg and grab either above or below your knee. Don’t grab directly behind your knee.
  3. Try to keep your leg as straight as possible as you gently pull your leg closer to your chest.
  4. Keep your left leg straight on the floor.
  5. Hold for 30 seconds.
  6. Repeat 3 to 5 times.
  7. Repeat on the other side.

3. You're Making Training Mistakes

Certain training mistakes can also lead to knee clicking while running. One of the most common? Overtraining.

"Increasing your mileage or intensity too quickly could increase the risk of these injuries," Buckingham says. He also says wearing the wrong shoes or running on the same side of the road over and over again can contribute to knee injuries.

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Fix It

“Runners won’t like to hear it, but one of the things you should do if you’re having knee pain is to stop running and/or doing other activities that cause pain in the knee,” Buckingham. says.

“Depending on the injury, icing the area can reduce some of the inflammation. Taking anti-inflammatory medication can also help.” Once the pain subsides, you can resume running — just make sure you gradually increase your mileage and monitor for symptoms.

And take a look at your shoes. “Wearing shoes that are worn out can increase the risk of overuse injuries because they do not offer the support and cushioning necessary,” Buckingham says. “Finding shoes that offer the appropriate support based on your running style could also help to decrease the risk of injury.”

Also, make sure you don’t run on the same side of the road every single time. “Running on the same side of a crowned road can aggravate the IT band leading to IT band syndrome,” Buckingham says.

4. You May Have a Meniscal Injury or Osteoarthritis

The meniscus is cartilage in your knee joint that helps absorb shock. It can often be damaged or torn if you quickly twist or turn directions. If you have knee clicking with running that comes on suddenly and is accompanied by pain and/or swelling, that could also be a sign of a possible meniscus injury, per the ​Clinics in Orthopedic Surgery​ research.

Buckingham says that pain with twisting or turning is another clue that there's something wrong with your meniscus. But if your knee makes more of a crunching sound, known as crepitus, it's a sign that you could have osteoarthritis.

Fix It

“Always opt to see someone for a proper assessment,” Malek says. Conservative care — pain management and physical therapy — is usually the first step, but it will depend on your specific case, she says. In the meantime, avoid any movement that aggravates your knee.

Meniscal injuries and osteoarthritis can often be treated with non-surgical measures, including the exercises listed above, but sometimes, surgery is needed. Your doctor can look at your specific condition and determine the best plan of action.

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