Knee Pain in Kids

What causes knee pain in kids?

Knee pain in kids and teens can be a result of traumatic knee injuries or repetitive overuse injuries from physical activity, such as competitive sports. 

Some of the most common injuries to children and teens that cause knee pain include fractures, dislocations, and sprains and tears of soft tissues like ligaments and tendons. In many cases, injuries involve more than one structure in the knee.

Signs of a Knee Injury

What are signs and symptoms of knee injuries?

At Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, our pediatric orthopedic and sports medicine specialists are specially trained to recognize the specific signs and symptoms that may be causing your child’s or teen’s knee pain in order to make an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

Some of the common signs and symptoms of knee injuries include: 

  • A painful “popping” when walking or bending the knee
  • Pain on the inside or outside of the knee
  • Swelling around the knee
  • Weakness of the knee
  • Limited motion of the knee
  • A feeling like the knee is locking up or getting stuck in place
  • Localized or dull pain during activity
  • A bump or knot around the knee

When should my kid see a doctor for knee pain?

The knee is the largest joint in the body, and it is made up of many important and complex structures. Injuries to the knee, especially for kids and teens who are still growing, can lead to short-term and long-term damage. If your child is experiencing knee pain, especially if you notice any limping, it is important that he temporarily stop activity and that you schedule an appointment to have your child’s knee evaluated by one of our specialists as soon as possible to help prevent potential additional knee damage.

It’s also important for kids and teens with knee pain and injuries to see an orthopedic or sports medicine specialist specifically trained to treat kids and teens. A pediatric-trained doctor will know how to diagnose and care for kids and teens to help avoid any long-term damage to the knees. The sports medicine orthopedic surgeons and sports medicine specialists at Children’s are specially trained to diagnose and treat kids from birth to age 21. We help your child recover as quickly as possible so that he can safely return to activities .

Types of Knee Injuries

What are the different types of knee injuries?

It is very common for children and teens to experience knee pain, especially for those who are playing sports. Commonly injured parts of the knee include the distal thighbone (femur), which is the end portion of the thighbone near the knee; proximal tibia (shinbone), which is the top portion of the tibia bone near the knee; tendons, which attach muscle to bone; and ligaments, which attach bone to bone.

Knee Fractures and Sprains

The knee is a common place for injury and pain in children, adolescents and athletes. Commonly injured parts of the knee include:

  • The femur physis (growth area)
    • The distal femur: the end of the femur bone near the knee.
  • The tibia physis (growth area)
    • The proximal tibia: the top portion of the tibia bone close to the knee. 

Medial collateral ligament (MCL) sprains 

A sprained medial collateral ligament (MCL) is a common football injury. It usually occurs when a player receives a direct hit to the outside of their knee while their foot is planted. There may be “popping” sound in the knee at the time of injury, followed by knee pain on the inner-side of the knee. Swelling and knee weakness is possible.

Surgery is usually not needed to treat an MCL sprain. Icing the knee and elevating the leg can reduce swelling, and crutches may be needed to allow the knee to rest. X-rays are usually taken to rule out a fracture. Athletes should begin a sports physical therapy program within a few days of the injury. 

Tibial tubercle fractures

These fractures occur when a child lands on a straight knee, such as when they are jumping while playing basketball. The tibia tubercle is the bump under the knee cap. When this bump breaks, it often needs to be fixed surgically to ensure the knee can continue to be straightened. The fracture is typically repaired with a few screws and your child is immobilized in either a cast or a knee brace for approximately six weeks. Once the cast is removed, sports physical therapy is often necessary to help strengthen the quadriceps muscle.

Tibial spine fractures

A knee injury common in active, growing children, adolescents and teens is a tibial spine fracture. It happens when the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is stretched and it pulls the tibial spine (a bony ridge at the top of the tibia, or shin bone) away from the rest of the bone.

This fracture can happen when the knee is extended too far or twisted. It is more common in children because a child’s ACL is stronger than the still-growing tibia.

How to spot a tibial spine fracture

  • Pain
  • A popping sensation in the knee
  • Swelling
  • Inability to put weight on the knee
  • Inability to straighten the knee completely
kid on bike illustration showing broken shin bone

How we diagnose a tibial spine fracture

An X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan can help diagnose the fracture properly. This is the best way to make sure your child gets the right treatment.

How we treat a tibial spine fracture

The common complications of a tibial spine fracture are knee stiffness or instability. These complications resemble those of an ACL tear or knee sprain.

  • If the tibial spine is not displaced, or separated from the rest of the bone, the fracture can be treated non-surgically by lining up the bone correctly and casting it.
  • If the fracture is more severe, surgery is needed to ensure proper healing. In many cases, an arthroscopic (minimally invasive) procedure can be used to put the fracture fragment back into place and secure it appropriately. This procedure involves placing two pins into the knee. The pins pull a suture over the tibial ridge to pull it into the right position. By treating the fracture this way, the surgeon can properly repair the fracture and avoid damaging t the nearby growth plate.
illustration of tibial spine knee repair

ACL Injury

The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of four main knee ligaments and helps stabilize a child’s knee. It runs diagonally in the middle of the knee and connects the thighbone (femur) to the shinbone (tibia). It is also one of the most commonly injured knee ligaments.

To learn more about what causes an ACL injury, the risks for children and teens, symptoms, and how our pediatric-trained team of sports medicine specialists diagnose and treat a torn ACL, visit our ACL injury page.

Discoid Meniscus

A discoid meniscus is an abnormality of the structure of the meniscus. Instead of the meniscus having its typical "C" shape, the center of the cartilage is filled in to varying degrees.  The cause of these abnormalities is unknown. It’s thought that genetic reasons could play in role in causing the meniscal cartilage to develop abnormally. It’s estimated that discoid menisci occur in three to five percent of people. The more abnormal the shape, the less normal the function—increasing the risk of injury. Discoid menisci can be thick and round, which causes them to snap when the knee performs a range of motions. They can also tear spontaneously in very young children. Typically, only one knee is affected. Discoid menisci are seen in both knees only about fifteen percent of the time. Discoid menisci almost always occur on the outer side of the knee, but in very rare cases can occur on the inner side.

Meniscus Tear

What is a torn meniscus? 

A meniscus is a rubbery tissue in the knee that serves as a cushion between the thigh (femur) and the shin (tibia). A meniscus can tear when a child twists their knee, squats or sustains significant trauma. Since a meniscus is made of specialized cartilage, injuries to it are commonly referred to as "torn cartilage."

A meniscus:

  • Cushions and protects the knee joint

  • Assists the ligaments in providing stability to the knee joint

Tearing of a normal meniscus rarely occurs in kids under 12 years old. Most of the time, if a child sustains a meniscus tear, it’s from a significant trauma. However, it can also occur if your child has abnormal cartilage.

How to spot a torn meniscus

Symptoms of a torn meniscus include knee pain, limited motion and swelling of the joint. The knee may occasionally lockup or become stuck in place. An MRI scan is used to confirm the diagnosis and other radiology tests may be done to rule out additional injuries.

How we treat a torn meniscus

In most cases, it’s best to have a torn meniscus treated since this injury rarely heals on its own. Left untreated, there can be further damage or tearing of the remaining meniscus, or even worse, to the joint surface (articular cartilage).

Treatment for a torn meniscus typically includes:

  • Ice
  • Rest, including the use of crutches
  • Surgery, depending on the type of tear

Treatment of meniscus tears depend on the type of tear:

  • Incomplete tear: If the tear involves only a portion of the meniscus, an incomplete or partial thickness tear, it may not need treatment. These are commonly seen in association with ligament injuries.
  • Inner tear: If the meniscus tear occurs in the inner two-thirds of the cartilage, where there is no blood supply, it will not heal. So, the tear is treated by trimming away the torn portion and leaving as much of the normal meniscus behind as possible.
  • Outer tear: If the tear is in the outer third of the meniscus, where there is a naturally occurring blood supply, it has the potential for healing. In many of these cases, the meniscus can be sutured or "tacked" together.

Overuse Injuries

Overuse injuries can happen with repetitive motions and are often seen in athletes. Some common types of overuse injuries include: 

Patella (Kneecap) Instability

What is patella instability?

The patella (kneecap), which rests in a groove at the end of the femur (thigh bone), protects the knee joint and helps with knee extension.

Patella dislocations usually happen when the knee is extended and twisted. Direct collisions to the knee (such as in football) can also cause a dislocation.

How to spot patella instability

Symptoms of a patellar dislocation include knee pain and swelling in the front of the knee. You may also notice your child’s patella is positioned on the outside of the knee, or the knee has an abnormal appearance.

How we diagnose patella instability

During an examination, your physician will assess range of motion, check stability and mobility and pinpoint any tender areas. X-rays of your child’s knee will be taken to show the alignment of the patella and to check for fractures of the patella or femur. Additional imaging, including MRI or CT scan, may be used to check for injuries to the bone or cartilage, tears of the medial patellofemoral ligament or to measure overall limb alignment.

How we treat patella instability 

After a dislocation, the patella may spontaneously go back to its normal position, or your doctor may need to put it back in place.

Treatment Options

Initial treatment usually includes over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications (such as aspirin or ibuprofen), restricting activity and immobilization or bracing. Physical therapy is also prescribed to strengthen quadriceps as well as hip and core mechanics.

If your child injures the cartilage over the knee joint (articular cartilage), which can cause loose fragments of bone or cartilage within the joint, surgery may be recommended. Children with recurrent patellar dislocations may need surgery to repair structures (bone, muscle, tendons, or ligaments) on the inside of the knee, release tight structures on the outside of the knees, or modify the alignment of the leg.

Recurrent patellar dislocations occur more commonly in children than in adults. This is often a result of abnormal anatomy that increases the likelihood for children to dislocate the patella.

Unlike adults, children have open growth plates to allow for continued bone growth. When considering surgical options for recurrent patellar dislocations, treatment options and timing may vary based on whether the child has open or closed growth plates.

Growth Plate Knee Trauma

Symptomatic Plica

What is a plica?

A plica is a naturally occurring fold in the joint lining. It rarely causes symptoms unless it sustains a direct trauma.

There are several naturally occurring plicae (plural of plica) of the knee, including:

  • Suprapatellarplica
  • Medial patellar plica
  • Infrapatellarplica

How to spot plica

Plicae rarely cause symptoms, except for medial parapatellarplica. Typically, plicae cause symptoms after young athletes sustain a direct blow to the area. Although not proven, it’s believed that the plica and overlying connective tissue become thickened and begin to catch or impinge after trauma.

Symptoms can occur suddenly (acute) or over time (chronic). Persistent knee pain during activity is the most common symptom, but sometimes athletes will also experience a "locked" knee.

It’s not uncommon for symptomatic plica to occur at the onset of a new sport’s season or with a sudden increase of training levels. Athletes in track, cross-county, soccer, football and cycling are especially vulnerable.

How we diagnose plica

There is no one test that conclusively diagnoses symptomatic plica. A doctor will need to examine your child to confirm the diagnosis and rule out other possible problems.

Exams may include:

  • Medical history review
  • Physical exam
  • Radiology tests

How we treat plica

Most symptomatic plica can be treated without surgery. Sports physical therapy may be recommended to help regain strength and mobility, as well as prevent future injury.