Bursitis is an inflammatory problem of your bursa. Luckily, early treatment can help you quickly recover from it. But, how do you know if you have it in the first place? What does bursitis in the knee feel like?
The main symptoms of knee bursitis are:
- Knee pain and swelling.
- Tenderness on the affected bursa.
- Warmth and redness in the area if there’s infection.
Knee bursitis may have other symptoms, too. If they’re present, it means that you need a more specific treatment to recover.
Below, you’ll learn which symptoms need further treatment. You’ll also read about what causes knee bursitis in the first place and evidence-based treatment options.
Let’s begin with the signs of knee bursitis:
What does knee bursitis feel like?
A bursa is a small fluid-filled sac that reduces friction between tissues. That’s why we have several of these bursae between our bones, tendons, muscles, and/or skin.
Now, bursitis happens when these fluid-filled sacs become inflamed. General symptoms of bursitis include (1):
- Pain and swelling in the affected bursae.
- Tenderness in the area.
- Stiffness on the affected joint.
- Bursitis symptoms tend to get worse with movement.
Basically, knee bursitis feels like a tender lump on your knee joint.
The lump can be warm and/or painful when you touch it.
Of course, because your knee joint has several bursae, the location of the lump varies. Different types of bursitis will have other, more specific symptoms, too.
Having said that…
There are 3 bursae that are particularly prone to knee bursitis.
1. The prepatellar bursa
The prepatellar bursa sits on top of the kneecap. So, when this small fluid-filled sac gets inflamed, we call it “kneecap bursitis.”
It’s a common injury in people that do prolonged kneeling. Like housemaids, carpenters, or gardeners, for example. That’s why it’s also known as “housemaid’s knee” or “carpenter’s knee.”
Prepatellar bursitis looks like an inflamed knee.
The kneecap area looks like a balloon. The knee joint may have stiffness and discomfort as well. It may be hard for you to bend your knee. (2)
If it’s infected, the area will be warm and painful to the touch. There may be a wound as well, where bacteria entered. Some people may have a fever, too. (3)
Any sign of infection means you need immediate antibiotic treatment. Your bursitis won’t get better unless you get rid of the bacteria. (3)
2. The infrapatellar bursae.
The patellar tendon is a thick band below the kneecap. It goes from the bottom of the patella to the tip of the shin bone. This tendon has two bursae:
- The superficial infrapatellar bursa. It sits on top of the patellar tendon. Below the skin.
- The deep infrapatellar bursa. Under the patellar tendon and the shin bone.
The superficial kind is more likely to develop bursitis, often after prolonged kneeling.
Deep infrapatellar bursitis is rare. (4)
Infrapatellar bursitis looks like a lump below the kneecap.
It’s a lump midway between the kneecap and the shin bone. It’s a common injury in the clergy. Thus, it’s also known as “clergyman’s knee.”
As with prepatellar bursitis, infrapatellar bursitis has a high risk of infection. It’s also prone to repetitive episodes of bursitis.
Having repetitive bursitis in the same bursa means you need extra help. There’s something in your lifestyle that’s causing the episodes.
If that’s you, please go to physical therapy. PTs can help you identify what’s causing the episodes as well as give you strategies to prevent knee bursitis. More on physical therapy for knee bursitis further down the article.
3. The pes anserine bursa.
This bursa is in the pes anserine area, on the inner side of the knee. That area has three tendons. The bursa reduces friction between them.
This type of bursitis is common in running and jumping athletes. Also, in people with conditions like obesity or knee arthritis. (5)
So, what does pes anserine bursitis feel like?
Pes anserine bursitis causes pain on the inner side of the knee.
Its symptoms are less obvious, compared to prepatellar or infrapatellar bursitis.
This bursitis may start as a discomfort in the area after exercising. It worsens with movement. You may feel mild swelling in the area after working out as well. (5)
As it progresses, other signs include painful swelling on the inner side of the knee. Often while standing up or crossing your legs. (5)
Further reading: How many bursae does the knee have?
What causes knee bursitis?
Knee bursitis can be caused by several factors:
People that work on their knees are prone to knee bursitis, particularly kneecap or infrapatellar bursitis. The bursa becomes inflamed due to constant pressure on hard surfaces.
Running and jumping sports also make athletes prone to knee bursitis. Repetitive movement from sports causes excess friction between tendons which irritates the bursa.
Some chronic health conditions predispose people to knee bursitis. These include rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, gout, and knee osteoarthritis. (1)
Previous knee injuries, like ligament or meniscus tears, increase the risk of knee bursitis as well. To add, having previous non-infected bursitis also increases the risk of an infected bursa in the future. (1)
Knee bursitis treatment
After the diagnosis is certain, there are several ways to treat bursitis knee bursitis:
The PRICE protocol
- Protection. Protect your joint from further damage.
- Rest. This is essential. It will let the bursa heal.
- Ice. Icing the joint can reduce inflammation and pain.
- Compression. The added pressure can “squeeze” the inflammation liquid out of the affected area.
- Elevation. Raising the leg above your heart will decrease inflammation thanks to gravity.
Once your doctor ruled out an infection, they may suggest this protocol. It will manage pain and swelling during the first days of injury.
Going to physical therapy for your knee bursitis is the fastest way to recover.
First, a physical therapist will focus on reducing swelling and pain. This will help you recover your usual range of motion.
Then, your therapist will give you exercises to strengthen your muscles. Part of your treatment will also be PT-prescribed home remedies for your knee bursitis.
These are the keys to getting back to your normal activities.
Ultimately, your therapist will give you strategies to prevent knee bursitis.
These strategies will differ from person to person.
For example, a carpenter may need knee pads to protect their bursa. Or specific exercises to prepare their knee before working.
But, an athlete may have to improve their technique. This will reduce pressure on the bursa, preventing it from becoming inflamed.
P.S.: If you’re having trouble searching for a knowledgeable PT in your area, we can help.
Septic bursitis needs antibiotics. Most people take them for at least 10 days. You may feel better after the first days but you still need to complete the treatment to prevent setbacks. (3)
For non-infected bursitis, your doctor may suggest anti-inflammatory medication.
Most people get better with over-the-counter drugs. But others may need stronger medications. This will depend on the evolution of your injury.
It’s best to look for medical advice. Your doctor will know which drugs are best for you.
It’s rare to need surgery for a swollen bursa. But people with repetitive episodes or those with infections that don’t respond to antibiotics may need it.
One surgical option is an aspiration. Your doctor will insert a needle into the bursa to extract the infected fluid. Then, you’ll be under observation. The injury should improve afterward.
If it doesn’t, the last option is removing the bursa. Your doctor will need imaging tests of your knee joints first. This will show the size of the injury. Then, they will remove one part or all the bursa.
Try this: 5 ways to treat knee bursitis.
What does bursitis in knee feel like?
The bursa will feel swollen and tender to touch. It can be painful as well. The symptoms may worsen with movement and improve with rest. If the bursitis is septic, you may have a fever too.
Is walking good for knee bursitis?
It can be, as long as it doesn’t make your knee bursitis symptoms worse.
Related: Can walking hurt my knee bursitis?
Does knee bursitis go away?
Most knee bursitis cases go away. Bursitis may stay longer if you’re not following the recommendations of your doctor.
Also, certain health conditions can make it harder to recover. Like arthritis or gout.
How painful is knee bursitis?
Some people with knee bursitis have severe pain. Others don’t have pain at all.
The truth is that science doesn’t fully understand how pain works yet. But, research shows your pain levels depend on several factors, like:
- Whether the bursitis is infected or not.
- Which bursa is affected.
- What caused bursitis.
- Your occupation.
- Lifestyle factors. Like sleep, nutrition, stress, exercise, social activities, responsibilities.
- Having other health issues.
- Fears and beliefs related to your injury.
Conclusion: What does bursitis of the knee feel like?
Knee bursitis feels like a swollen lump on the injured bursa. It may be painful as well. Some people feel it’s hard to stand on their legs or bend their knees.
The feeling will depend on the location of the injured bursa and whether or not it’s infected.
Having an infected bursa can increase knee pain. This is a normal response from your body. High levels of pain are a sign that you need extra help. If that’s you, go to the doctor to rule out an infection.
- Lohr, Kristine. “Bursitis: Practice essentials.” Medscape. Retrieved on August, 2021 from: https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/2145588-overview
- Rishor-Olney C R, Pozun A. Prepatellar Bursitis. [Updated 2021 Jun 5]. StatPearls Retrieved on August, 2021 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557508/
- Truong J, Mabrouk A, Ashurst J V. Septic Bursitis. [Updated 2021 Aug 6]. StatPearls. Retrieved on August, 2021 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470331/
- Jain, Mantu et al. “Infrapatellar bursitis presenting as a lump.” BMJ case reports vol. 14, 5 e 243581. 25 May. 2021, doi: 10.1136/bcr-2021-243581
- Mohseni M, Graham C. “Pes Anserine Bursitis.” [Updated 2021 Jul 18]. StatPearls. Retrieved on August, 2021 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532941/