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What does arthritis in the knee and leg feel like?

Arthritis is a common condition that causes pain and inflammation in the joints. It can affect any joint in the body, including the knees and other joints in the legs. Arthritis in the knees and legs can cause a variety of symptoms that range from mild to severe. Some of the most common symptoms include pain, stiffness, swelling, difficulty moving the joint, tenderness, and creaking or crunching sounds. The specific symptoms and their severity depends on the type of arthritis, the joints affected, and the stage of the disease.

Types of Arthritis That Affect the Knees and Legs

There are several types of arthritis that commonly affect the knee and leg joints:


Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis overall and in the knees specifically. It is caused by wear and tear to the cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones where they meet to form joints. Breakdown of cartilage causes bones to rub together, resulting in pain, swelling, and stiffness. Osteoarthritis usually starts gradually and gets worse over time.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the joints, causing inflammation of the joint lining. This can lead to joint damage over time. Rheumatoid arthritis often starts in smaller joints like the hands and feet but can affect larger joints like the knees as it advances.

Post-traumatic Arthritis

Post-traumatic arthritis develops after an injury to a joint. Injuries that can lead to this type of arthritis include fractures, torn ligaments, and dislocations. The initial injury can damage the cartilage and other joint structures, leading to arthritis later on. The knees are particularly prone to post-traumatic arthritis.

Septic Arthritis

Septic arthritis, also called infectious arthritis, is inflammation and joint damage due to a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection within the joint. The knee is the most common site for septic arthritis. Symptoms come on rapidly and can quickly lead to severe joint damage without prompt treatment.


Gout is a form of inflammatory arthritis caused by high levels of uric acid in the blood. Uric acid crystals can deposit in joints and cause gout attacks marked by intense pain, redness, and swelling, often in the big toe but sometimes involving the knees and other joints. Gout can lead to erosion of the joint over time.

Common Knee Arthritis Symptoms

Arthritis in the knees can cause the following symptoms:


The most common symptom of knee arthritis is pain in and around the knee joint. This occurs because the cartilage breakdown leads to bones rubbing together. The pain may be worse after activity or when bearing weight on the joint. Early on, the pain comes and goes, but it often becomes constant as arthritis progresses.


Especially after periods of rest or inactivity, arthritis can make the knees feel stiff and not move smoothly or easily. This is due to fluid buildup and inflammation in the joint structures. The stiffness tends to be worse first thing in the morning or after sitting for long periods.


Inflamed, arthritic knees often look swollen or puffy. The swelling occurs because of fluid accumulation in the joint capsule and surrounding soft tissues. This is the body’s response to the inflammatory chemicals released in the joint due to arthritis.


Pressing on or touching the knee joint often elicits tenderness in people with knee arthritis. The joint structures are sensitive due to the inflammation present. Even light pressure can provoke pain.


Over time, damage to knee ligaments and joint structures from arthritis can lead to a feeling that the knee is unstable or loose. There may be sensations of shifting, buckling, or giving way of the knee, which can increase the risk for falls.

Decreased Range of Motion

The combination of joint swelling, pain, and bony changes from arthritis can restrict mobility of the knee. Simple movements like fully straightening or bending the knee become limited and difficult. Loss of motion can interfere with everyday function.

Grating or Cracking

As the cartilage wears down, the knee joint may make grinding, crunching, or cracking sounds with movement, also called crepitus. These audible symptoms occur when the rough bony surfaces rub together.

Loss of Flexibility

Healthy joints are flexible and allow smooth, easy movement. But stiff, painful arthritic knees lose their natural flexibility and range of motion. Simple tasks like getting up from a chair or climbing stairs become difficult due to inflexible joints.

Symptoms in Other Leg Joints

In addition to the knee, arthritis can affect other leg joints like the hip, ankle, and foot. Common symptoms include:

Hip Arthritis

– Groin, buttock, thigh or knee pain
– Stiffness and reduced range of motion
– Trouble putting on shoes and socks
– Limping or altered gait
– Thickened hip joint

Ankle Arthritis

– Pain, swelling, and stiffness in the ankle
– Reduced ankle mobility
– Tenderness along the ankle joint
– Feeling of grating with ankle motions
– Thick, bony ankle

Foot Arthritis

– Pain, swelling and stiffness in foot joints
– Bunions or bone spurs
– Reduced ability to flex and extend toes
– Thickened, sensitive joints in the ball of the foot and big toe base
– Flattened arch or altered gait

What Does Arthritic Knee Pain Feel Like?

People often describe arthritic knee pain using the following terms:

– Aching
– Throbbing
– Stabbing or sharp
– Burning
– Tiring or exhausting
– Nagging
– Agonizing
– Stiff
– Tender
– Unbearable

The pain may be worse with activity like climbing stairs, prolonged standing or walking, or exercising. Rest helps ease the discomfort temporarily. Many people with knee arthritis experience constant baseline knee pain interspersed with more intense flares.

When to See a Doctor

See your doctor if you have any of the following warning signs:

– New knee pain and swelling lasting more than 2 weeks
– Knee pain preventing you from your regular activities
– Locking, buckling or giving out of the knee
– Significant knee stiffness, swelling or deformity
– Fever, redness, warmth or drainage from the knee (signs of infection)
– Unexplained weight loss along with joint pain

Early evaluation and treatment is key to managing arthritis symptoms and preventing permanent joint damage.

Diagnosing Knee Arthritis

Doctors use a combination of methods to diagnose knee arthritis:

Medical History

Looking at risk factors, other medical conditions, family history, and the pattern of symptoms helps determine if arthritis is likely.

Physical Exam

Examining the knee helps the doctor assess swelling, tenderness, range of motion, alignment, sounds, and signs of instability.

Imaging Tests

X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs can visualize joint damage and rule out other problems.

Lab Tests

Blood tests look for inflammation and may help confirm types like rheumatoid arthritis. Joint fluid analysis can check for infection.


Removing and analyzing knee joint fluid with a needle can detect infection, gout, and other types of arthritis.

Treating Knee Arthritis

While there is no cure, many treatments can help manage arthritis knee pain and symptoms:

Lifestyle Changes

Weight loss, low-impact exercise, braces, physical therapy, and avoiding activities that aggravate the knees can help reduce pain and improve function.


Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol), NSAIDs like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve), as well as prescription medications can help control arthritis pain and inflammation.


Corticosteroid injections can temporarily relieve swelling and pain. Hyaluronic acid injections may cushion the knee joint.


For severe, end-stage arthritis, procedures like knee replacement surgery may be needed to repair damaged joints.

Other treatments like physical therapy, knee braces, walking aids, alternative therapies, and nutritional supplements can also help manage arthritis knee symptoms. Working closely with your doctor is important to find the optimal treatment plan for your individual case.

Living with Knee Arthritis

Coping with chronic knee arthritis involves:

– Following your doctor’s treatment plan
– Doing recommended exercise and physical therapy
– Using anti-inflammatory medications as directed
– Maintaining a healthy weight to avoid extra stress on knees
– Using assistive devices like braces, shoe orthotics, or walking aids
– Making lifestyle adjustments to protect arthritic knees
– Finding support from friends, family, or arthritis patient groups

While arthritis in the knees can’t be cured, the variety of management strategies available can help restore mobility and improve your quality of life. Discuss all your treatment options with your healthcare providers.


Arthritis in the knee and leg joints causes an array of symptoms that can range from mild achiness to excruciating pain. The most common signs are joint pain, swelling, tenderness, stiffness, decreased flexibility, and grinding or cracking sounds with movement. While osteoarthritis is the most prevalent type in the knees, other forms like rheumatoid, post-traumatic, septic, and gout arthritis can also affect the leg joints. Early evaluation and ongoing management with a combination of lifestyle changes, medications, injections, physical therapy, braces, and possibly surgery can help control arthritis knee and leg symptoms. Working closely with your medical providers will give you the best chance at regaining comfort, function, and quality of life.