Knees Hurt When Sitting | 5 Causes and How to Treat Them

An old man wearing jacket, sitting with his knee hurting

Nowadays, most people spend at least two-thirds of their working hours on their butts. So, maybe your knees hurt when sitting because you’ve been in that chair for too long. (1)

It can be that simple, really. And, your aching knees will feel better after walking a little. But, knee pain while sitting can also be a sign of something else, like runner’s knee or osteoarthritis.

These conditions often get better with exercises to strengthen knees. But, you may need extra help from a PT to get the right rehab exercises for you.

In any case, this article will give you 5 common causes of knee pain while sitting and what to do about them!

5 causes of knee pain while sitting

1) You’ve been sitting for a long period

Your knee may hurt because you’ve been sitting for too long. In this case, you may also feel neck and/or back pain at the same time.

See, pain is a tool your body uses to get your attention. It tells you that something’s wrong so you can do something about it.

Now, understand that your body needs to move or else it gets achy and stiff. So, the pain you’re feeling is your body telling you to change positions.

Having said that, a 30-second movement break can be enough to reduce discomfort.

Doing this every 20-40 minutes may help you reduce knee pain. And without affecting your productivity. (2)

You could also take a longer 2-5 minute break every 60-90 minutes. Walk a little, stretch your legs, or do some squats on your chair. This can reduce knee pain from sitting. (2)

Pro tip: Use Pomodoro timers to set your breaks for you. This way, you don’t forget to stand up and stretch.

2) You’re sitting in an awkward position

First, let me clarify something:

An awkward position for you may be comfortable for someone else.

Postures vary a lot between healthy people. And, there’s no consensus yet on what exactly is “good posture,” as it depends on several factors. These include your anatomy, age, emotions, and lifestyle.

That said, certain positions can increase knee discomfort. They can be problematic if you keep them for extended periods.

A common awkward sitting position is having your legs crossed “Indian style”.

There’s nothing wrong with it if your joints are healthy. But, make sure to do movement breaks to avoid pain.

In contrast, it’s best to avoid this sitting position if you have a previous knee injury. Having your knees bent for long periods can worsen the pain.

Also, you may have to change the way you sit for a while if you have a knee problem. Find a position that doesn’t make your pain worse and treat the root cause of your knee pain.

3) Your chair is uncomfortable

An uncomfortable office chair will likely leave you in some kind of pain even if you take breaks. Now, you might be asking:

What makes a good sitting chair?

In the most basic terms, a good chair should let you adjust at least the seat height and depth. Having an adjustable backrest also helps. (3)

If your current chair doesn’t let you change these settings, it may be best to buy a new one. It doesn’t have to be expensive. But it should be able to adapt to your body.

Here’s how to know if your chair settings are ergonomic:

  • Sit on the chair with your back straight.
  • Your upper and lower back must be in contact with the backrest
  • Put your feet flat on the ground.
  • Bend your knees about 90°.

If your current setting doesn’t let you assume this position, change the height and depth.

You can also make your chair more comfortable with cushions or pillows. Put them on your lower back. Or sit on them to increase your sitting height.

Try different positions until you find the one that’s most comfortable for your knee joints.

4) Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS)

PFPS is also known as “runner’s knee”. It’s the most common cause of knee pain in younger people.

Joint pain from PFPS can get worse under the following conditions (4):

  • Weight-bearing activities. These include standing, walking, squatting, or climbing stairs.
  • Prolonged sitting. This is a common symptom of runner’s knee.

You may feel a dull ache around the kneecap while moving the joint. But, knee discomfort can also be present at rest.

Some people have mild joint swelling after physical activities. Others feel a grinding sensation under the patella. This isn’t always a bad thing, though.

The good news is that this condition responds well to conservative treatment. It’s often enough to strengthen the muscles of your lower body.

But, what about the knee pain when sitting too long?

Try raising the height of your chair. Do this by adjusting the seat or sitting on some cushions.

This will extend your knee a little, which can reduce the pressure within your joint. In turn, this may reduce pain. (4)

Also, try taking movement breaks every 20-30 minutes to help manage knee symptoms. (4)

5) Underlying chronic joint inflammation

Knee pain while sitting can also be a sign that something more serious is wrong with your joint.

This is especially evident if you still have knee pain, even if you take breaks and have a good chair.

Some of the most common causes of chronic knee inflammation include:

Knee osteoarthritis

This is the wear and tear of the cartilage beneath the thigh bone and/or the knee cap. Severe cases are common in people over 60 years old.

In this condition, you may feel your knee hurt while sitting, standing, walking, and/or at rest. You may have some swelling under the kneecap, too.

The treatment focuses on delaying the progression of arthritis. Usually with physical therapy and home care. But, severe cases may need knee replacement surgery to improve their symptoms.

Rheumatoid arthritis

This is an autoimmune disease. Here, the immune system attacks healthy cells on the joints. This causes pain and swelling on several body parts. Like the hands, knees, and/or wrists.

Women over 50 years old are at a greater risk of having RA. Symptoms often improve with medication and exercise.

But, early diagnosis is important to avoid complications. So, please visit a rheumatologist if you have knee pain while sitting and also have the following:

  • Pain and swelling on two or more joints at the same time
  • A family history of rheumatoid arthritis.
  • You’re a woman over 50 years old.

How to treat knee pain when sitting?

Do more physical activity

A sedentary lifestyle not only causes knee pain but other health issues as well. From muscle stiffness to increasing your risk of heart attacks. (1)

You can prevent this by doing more physical activity. Walking is a great option. For example, a 10-minute brisk walk can improve your overall health.

Now, what about physical activity during work?

Try taking the stairs instead of the elevator when possible. Adding a portable pedal is a good idea as well. That way, you can move your legs under your desk while working. (1)

Go to physical therapy

You can have on-point office ergonomics and do your movement breaks like clockwork. But, going to physiotherapy is still the fastest way to get your knee health back.

The therapist will perform a physical exam to figure out what’s wrong with your knee.

Then, they will give you recommendations and individualized rehab exercises. These are key to helping your knee hurt less and get back to normal.

The physio may suggest wearing knee support during the day as well. This can be the case if you have osteoarthritis or other structural issues.

Have a home care routine for your knee

People with chronic inflammation can benefit from a home care routine. These are conservative measures you can do at home when you feel pain in your knee.

Most home care routines for knee health include at least one of the following:

  • Light stretches at the start and/or end of the day.
  • Icing your knee before going to bed to fight inflammation
  • Elevating the joint after an unusually active day.
  • Wearing a knee sleeve to keep the joint warm.

Also, try to add knee strengthening exercises into your routine. This is one of the best strategies for pain relief.

When to go to a doctor?

Pay a visit to your doctor if the pain doesn’t get better after a few days. Also, if the pain doesn’t let you sleep or you can’t walk because of it.

The doctor may request a magnetic resonance imaging test first. Depending on your symptoms, they may need blood tests as well.

These results combined with a thorough physical exam will provide a diagnosis.

Then, the physician will suggest some treatment options.

For mild or moderate injuries, they may prescribe anti-inflammatories. They’ll probably make a referral to physical therapy as well.

Depending on the root cause of pain, your doctor may suggest wearing some type of supportive shoes. This can be the case if you also have a foot injury.

If your symptoms don’t improve, they may consider cortisone injections for pain relief.

Severe injuries or persistent symptoms may need surgical intervention. The type of knee surgery will depend on your diagnosis.

FAQs:

How do I stop my knees from hurting when I sit?

Stand and walk a little for 30 seconds every 20-40 minutes. Or take 2-5 minute breaks every 60-90 minutes. (2)

If that doesn’t improve the pain, go to a physical therapist. They will check what’s going on and treat it.

What causes knee pain when sitting?

Most of the time, your knees hurt because you’ve been sitting for long periods. Or, sitting in an awkward position.

But, knee pain while sitting could be a sign of something else. Like patellofemoral pain syndrome or osteoarthritis.

What’s considered a long time to sit?

4-8 hours of sitting per day are considered too much. (1)

Conclusion: Knee joint pain while sitting

If you experience knee pain while sitting, it may be a sign that you need a break. Stand up, walk a little, and check if your chair is comfortable.

But, if you’ve had knee pain for a while now, visit a doctor. You may have to do some lifestyle changes as well. Try walking more or develop a home care routine for your knee.

Resources

  1. Daneshmandi, Hadi et al. “Adverse Effects of Prolonged Sitting Behavior on the General Health of Office Workers.” Journal of lifestyle medicine vol. 7, 2 (2017): 69-75. doi: 10.15280/jlm.2017.7.2.69
  2. Luger, Tessy et al. “Work‐break schedules for preventing musculoskeletal disorders in workers.” The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews vol. 2017, 11 CD012886. 28 Nov. 2017, doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012886
  3. Van Niekerk, Sjan-Mari et al. “The effectiveness of a chair intervention in the workplace to reduce musculoskeletal symptoms. A systematic review.” BMC musculoskeletal disorders vol. 13 145. 13 Aug. 2012, doi: 10.1186/1471-2474-13-145
  4. Collins, Natalie J et al. “Pain During Prolonged Sitting Is a Common Problem in Persons With Patellofemoral Pain.” The Journal of orthopaedic and sports physical therapy vol. 46, 8 (2016): 658-63. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2016.6470