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The link between back and knee pain explained

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 5 minutes read
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Living with lower back and knee pain can be challenging. Both areas play a crucial role in our everyday mobility and function, and pain in both of these areas can significantly impact your quality of life.

However, by unravelling the connection between these two types of pain and finding effective relief, life can become much more enjoyable.

In this article, we'll delve into the symptoms, possible causes, and treatments for lower back and knee pain, providing you with valuable insights to alleviate your discomfort and improve your wellbeing.

Understanding lower back and knee pain

Lower back and knee pain are prevalent conditions that affect millions of people worldwide. These types of pain are common, and can arise from various factors. Some of the most common factors include:

●       Arthritis

●       Injuries

●       Muscle imbalances

●       Nerve compression

●       Posture and mechanical issues

Common symptoms

Recognizing the symptoms associated with lower back and knee pain is crucial for identifying and understanding your own discomfort. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Types of pain: lower back pain may manifest as a dull ache, sharp shooting pain, or a constant throbbing sensation. Knee pain can range from a mild discomfort to severe pain, often localized around the kneecap or deep within the joint.
  • Stiffness: you may notice a decreased range of motion in your lower back or stiffness that worsens after periods of inactivity. In the knees, stiffness can make it challenging to bend, extend, or fully straighten the joint. You may find it challenging to walk, climb stairs, stand for extended periods, or engage in physical activities that were once effortless.
  • Swelling and inflammation: inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis or bursitis, can cause noticeable swelling, warmth, and redness in the affected areas.
  • Radiating pain: in some cases, lower back pain can radiate down into the legs, commonly referred to as sciatica. This radiating pain follows the path of the sciatic nerve and can extend into the buttocks, thighs, calves, and even reach the feet. Knee pain may also radiate to surrounding areas, causing discomfort in the thighs or shins.
  • Clicking or popping: individuals with knee pain may experience a clicking, popping, or grinding sensation within the joint during movement. This can be accompanied by discomfort or a sense of the joint "catching."

The link between lower back and knee pain

When it comes to lower back and knee pain, it's important to recognize that the two areas are intricately connected. While knee pain can arise from various factors specific to the knee joint, it can also be influenced by issues originating in the lower back.

The sciatic nerve

One crucial factor contributing to knee pain from the lower back is the complex network of nerves that extend throughout the spine, including the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve, which is the largest nerve in the body, runs from the lower back, travels down through the buttocks, and branches out to the legs and feet.

When the sciatic nerve becomes compressed or irritated due to issues such as herniated discs or spinal stenosis, it can result in radiating pain.

This condition, often referred to as sciatica, can cause not only lower back pain but also knee pain, tingling sensations, and muscle weakness along the pathway of the nerve.

Can sciatica cause knee pain?

Yes, sciatica can cause knee pain. When the sciatic nerve becomes compressed or irritated, it can result in pain that extends from the lower back to the knee. If you experience knee pain along with other sciatica symptoms, it's important to seek medical attention for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Symptoms of sciatica

  • Lower back pain
  • Knee pain
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Muscle weakness

What causes sciatica?

  • Herniated disk: when a disk between the vertebrae in the spine bulges or ruptures, it can put pressure on the sciatic nerve, causing sciatica symptoms and potentially knee pain.
  • Spinal stenosis: narrowing of the spinal canal can compress the sciatic nerve, leading to pain and discomfort radiating down to the knee.
  • Piriformis syndrome: the piriformis muscle, located in the buttocks, can tighten or spasm, irritating the sciatic nerve and causing pain that extends into the knee.
  • Degenerative disk disease: as the spinal disks naturally age and degenerate, they can become less flexible and result in sciatic nerve compression and subsequent knee pain.

Treatment options for lower back and joint pain

  • Pain medication: nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or prescribed pain medications can help alleviate sciatic and knee pain.
  • Physical therapy: specific exercises and stretches prescribed by a physical therapist can strengthen the muscles supporting the spine, improve flexibility, and relieve sciatic pain.
  • Heat and cold therapy: applying heat or cold packs to the affected area can help reduce inflammation, alleviate pain, and promote relaxation.
  • Epidural steroid injections: in some cases, injections of corticosteroids into the affected area can help reduce inflammation and relieve sciatica-related knee pain. This is only suitable after trying other methods.
  • Surgery: If conservative treatments don't provide sufficient relief, surgery may be considered for severe cases of sciatica, particularly if there is a herniated disc or spinal stenosis that requires intervention.

It's important to note that treatment options may vary depending on the underlying cause of the lower back and knee pain. Consulting with a healthcare professional, such as a doctor or physiotherapist, is crucial for an accurate diagnosis and tailored treatment plan.

Lifestyle changes to ease back and knee pain

Back and knee pain can often by worsened by lifestyle factors, such as exercise, diet, activity levels, and how often you spend sitting down. To help alleviate pain, consider the following lifestyle changes:

Exercise: avoid heavy exercise if you experience this kind of pain. Activities such as running can put strain on the knee joints, and gym activities such as weightlifting can put additional strain on the back. Instead, try light exercises like walking, swimming, water aerobics, or yoga.

Diet: diet can play a key part in joint pain. Certain foods such as kale, spinach, broccoli, fish, and turmeric are found to have anti-inflammatory properties. This can help prevent chronic issues with the knees or back.

Activity levels and posture: many people experience back pain as a result of sitting down for long periods. If you find yourself doing this, such as in an office job, research suggests that you should get up and move around every 30 minutes.

When should I see my doctor about lower back and knee pain?

You should see a doctor if your lower back and knee pain does not improve after a few weeks of treating it at home. Additionally, if the pain is stopping you from carrying out day-to-day activities, or is getting worse over time, you should speak to your doctor.

Your doctor will be able to examine you, discuss your symptoms and advise on the best course of action for you.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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