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Is Your Knee Pain from Arthritis or Something Else?

If you’re someone in your 40s and 50s that has knee pain, you’re probably thinking “oh, I must have knee arthritis.” You’re probably scared, worried about the future, and possibly even paralyzed by the thought that knee arthritis is already setting in.

Understanding the root of your knee pain can sometimes be tricky, so as a professional I want to give you my insights so that you can take the steps to get out of pain and get back to doing what you love!

In this blog we’ll discuss:

  • Some other symptoms that you could be having that are likely not from arthritis
  • How to identify if your knee pain is being caused by arthritis
  • What to do for treatment if you do feel like your knee pain is from arthritis

Symptoms of Knee Arthritis

There is diagnostic criteria for knee osteoarthritis that is about 90% accurate when it comes to correlating with positive knee x-ray results. 

According to the criteria from the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence, NICE, in the United Kingdom, there is a 90% chance that a patient who comes in for knee pain has arthritis if they meet the following three criteria:

  • They’re 45 years or older
  • Their knee pain is movement-related
  • They either have no morning knee stiffness or morning stiffness that lasts 30 minutes or less

What Does Knee Arthritis Feel Like?

A lot of people wonder, “what does knee arthritis feel like? The interesting thing is, just because you have knee arthritis doesn’t mean you’re going to have any type of symptoms, so half of the people who walk around with knee arthritis don’t actually know they have arthritis because they have no symptoms!

Knee pain with activity that resolves at rest

Symptoms of knee arthritis, or how to tell what knee arthritis feels like, is a feeling of knee pain, typically, that only occurs with activity and resolves at rest, so when you stop moving and stop doing your activities it usually goes away. There may be a dull ache for a little while and the muscles may be sore, but mostly it’s most intense when you’re active and moving.

Stiffness in the morning

Most of the time you’d have stiffness in the morning or after being still for a prolonged period, like sitting at the dinner table or driving the car. After you’ve been sitting at a desk for a while, your knee will get stiff.

There are also some symptoms that are most likely not due to knee arthritis that people sometimes attribute to knee arthritis.

Knee crackling or crunching

Called “knee crepitus” in the medical community, knee crackling or crunching is pain-free, but you can hear it or feel it when you’re getting down into a deep squat, going up stairs, or getting in and out of a chair.  

Many times people think the noise comes from bone-on-bone pressure or that they’re doing damage to their knee when, typically, it’s benign. It can be caused by a variety of different factors, including gas bubbles in your synovial fluid, Chondromalacia, or tightness in the joint space.

As physical therapists, we can assess why the crunching may be happening and have a variety of treatment strategies, including tailored stretches or cupping modalities or dry needling. These solutions just depend on the patient and what is causing their specific knee crepitus.

Most of the time if it’s pain-free and it’s just annoying, it’s very unlikely that it’s due to arthritis or that it’s doing any type of harm.

Knee popping

Knee popping is another symptom that’s typically not associated with osteoarthritis. You may notice your knee pops when you bend or straighten your knee or get out of a chair. Knee popping can be caused by a variety of things: tight muscles, ligaments that are too tight or too loose, etc., but typically knee popping is not indicative of knee arthritis.

Knee catching

If you notice your knee feels stuck when you bend or straighten your knee, this is called knee catching. This is typically an indication of some type of issue with the meniscus, but a thorough assessment by a physical therapist will help identify the root cause. Typically, knee catching is not associated with knee arthritis.

Other Concerning Symptoms 

Some symptoms to be concerned about that are likely are what physical therapists refer to as “red flags”. They’re often mistaken for symptoms of knee arthritis but indicate something else is likely to be going on. 

Here are some “red flags” to look out for that are not from knee arthritis:

  • Progressive, well-localized pain that does not vary with activity, posture, or time of day
  • Pain worse at rest
  • Pain significantly worse at night
  • Prolonged morning stiffness lasts > 2 hours
  • Presence of co-morbid conditions that are associated with inflammatory arthritis (e.g., psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease, etc.)
  • Persistent severe swelling

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Treating Knee Arthritis Without Surgery

Treating knee arthritis without surgery if you have those three symptoms that we talked about at the very top and you’re 90% likely to have knee arthritis, it does not mean that you need surgery. Most orthopedic surgeons won’t even consider a total knee arthroplasty or a total knee joint replacement until the osteoarthritis in the knee has become significant and/or the pain is really severe and people are just really debilitated.

There’s a common misconception when it comes to osteoarthritis that it will progress slowly and it inevitably gets worse over time, but that’s actually not the case.

While you won’t have any type of improvement in the structure of the joint, you can’t really get rid of arthritis once it starts, you can only treat all the muscles and ligaments and joints around it and decrease the pain and improve your function without having to have surgery.

The data suggests that about a third of cases, over the course of a few years, usually improve, a third, pretty much stay the same, and the remaining third of patients will develop progressive, symptomatic disease. For those who develop severe arthritis, it’s usually because of a variety of factors, including obesity and just repeated trauma over time, some part genetics.

Knee Pain cover thumbnail transparent background

Download Our Knee Pain Pocket Guide

This free guide will help teach you exactly what to do if you want to minimize the progression of knee osteoarthritis and stay active and strong without pain pills, injections, or surgery.

The best thing you can do is to exercise regularly.

The advice is to advise people with osteoarthritis to exercise as a core treatment, irrespective of age, comorbidity, pain severity, or disability, everyone should be exercising if they have knee pain related to arthritis. If they have knee arthritis at all, actually.

The best treatment exercise program includes local muscle strengthening, range of motion exercises, and gentle aerobic fitness. 

If you are having any type of knee pain, whether it’s from arthritis or something else, physical therapy can help and is one of your best bets to decrease pain and improve your function over time without getting knee surgery. Your physical therapist can work with you to tailor a program specifically to your symptoms and goals. 

If you’re in the Austin or surrounding areas, Natural Fit Therapy can help you get started on an arthritis-friendly program to ensure you stay strong and active for the long-run.


  1. NICE Knee Arthritis Diagnostic Criteria: https://www.oarsijournal.com/article/S1063-4584(19)31209-9/fulltext
  2. Osteoarthritis: Care and Management in Adults https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25340227/
Dr. Ryan Seifert - Physical Therapist in Austin, TX

Dr. Ryan Seifert

Natural Fit Physical Therapy

"We Help Adults 50+ Become More Active, Stay Healthy, And Avoid Slowing Down Without Pain Pills, Injections, Or Surgery."



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