It’s probably happened to you at least once; you’re walking along just fine, maybe headed up a flight of stairs and your knee suddenly gives out. This phenomenon is referred to as “knee buckling”. Many orthopedists believe this is a protective response by your body to protect the knee joint from damage. However, if you’re experiencing this issue often, or in combination with popping and locking of the knee joint, there may be a more serious issue going on, such as an acute injury to your ACL or degenerative joint damage in the form of osteoarthritis (OA).
There are a variety of reasons why your knee may regularly be buckling. The most common are an acute injury such as tears in the meniscus, or ACL. Or chronic inflammation and cartilage damage has started to take place in the knee joint.
Unfortunately, it’s likely your lifestyle and activities are adding to the issue. If you are involved in high-impact sports such as long-distance running or skiing, you might repeatedly be spraining or injuring your knees, which can damage or tear ligaments and the meniscus. Over time, these injuries erode the stability of the knee joint as well as initiate the inflammation cascade of OA. In addition to soft tissue injuries, bone spurs can occur and bone fragments can get broken off that then float around the joint which can lead to knee buckling.
In most cases, knee buckling is an indicator of a more serious issue such as an ACL tear. But for some individuals, especially the elderly, knee buckling itself can cause even bigger problems. Clinical research indicates that knee buckling may cause falls and fractures and could help explain the risk of hip fracture in people who suffer from osteoarthritis.
“One U.S study, which looked at over 2000 people with osteoarthritis, found that about 12 percent experienced at least one knee-buckling incident in the past three months. Out of these people, 13 percent fell when the buckling occurred. It also turned out that knee pain, muscle weakness, as well as poor physical function were related to the buckling.”
A physical therapist or doctor is usually able to diagnose the cause of your knee buckling through a series of mobility tests, a manual exam, and imaging such as ultrasound. Once they’ve determined the cause of the buckling, they’ll be able to devise a treatment plan to fix the issue.
For minor acute injuries, often the R.I.C.E (rest, ice, compression, elevation) method is utilized. Physicians may also recommend NSAIDS for short-term pain control and to reduce swelling in the knee. If compensation patterns or joint weakness and stability need fixing, a knee brace might also be utilized.
Some stretches and exercises can often help with minor weakness and stability issues:
In some severe cases, surgery may be necessary if conservative treatments are not successful in addressing the issue. If you’re experiencing chronic knee pain, or your knee is frequently popping, locking, and giving out you should get an exam to determine what’s causing it and treat the underlying cause.