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HealthInfo Canterbury

Knee pain in children

An illustration showing the anatomy of the knee and where inflammation occurs in Osgood-Schlatter disease.The knee is the largest and strongest joint in your body. It includes your thigh bone (femur), upper end of your shinbone (tibia), and your kneecap (patella). Ligaments and tendons inside your knee act like strong ropes to hold your bones together.

Children commonly get pain in their kneecaps or the front of their knees. It mostly happens during periods of rapid growth and when they're physically active.

This page talks about ongoing causes of knee pain such as chondromalacia patella (also called runner's knee) and Osgood-Schlatter disease. Other causes of pain at the front of the knee include general bone pain, broken bones and other soft tissue knee injuries.

Symptoms of knee pain in children

Your child may feel a dull, achy pain that happens after physical activity. Other symptoms can include:

If your child’s knee pain won't go away, it's important to see your GP. They'll ask you questions about your child’s symptoms and examine their hip and leg. They may arrange an X-ray, depending on what they think the cause might be.

Important

Take your child to see a doctor straight away if they:

Causes of knee pain in children

Knees are complex with a large range of movement. The bones, ligaments and tendons are strong but large forces, such as running or jumping can cause damage.

Osgood-Schlatter disease is caused by the patella tendon (or ligament) at the front of the knee pulling at the growth plate part of the tibia (shinbone) causing pain.

Chondromalacia patella is a softening of the protective covering (articular cartilage) on the underside of the kneecap (patella). It can be caused by muscles being too tight (especially the hamstrings and quadriceps), the knee cap being out of alignment, or an injury. It can also be present at birth.

Treatment for knee pain in children

Knee pain in children caused by chondromalacia patella or Osgood-Schlatter disease can usually be treated simply.

Very occasionally, your child may need surgery. If your surgeon thinks this is necessary, they'll discuss the surgery and the risks and benefits with you.

How you can help your child

Your child may need simple pain relief. Make sure they take it regularly until they're comfortable. But never exceed the recommended dose for your child's weight. Try paracetamol or an anti-inflammatory medicine such as ibuprofen.

If your child's knee is sore and appears swollen, apply ice to the area for 20 minutes at a time. This helps to ease the pain and reduce the swelling. Wrap the ice in a damp towel or cloth – don't apply it directly to the skin or you could cause an ice burn.

The knee pain may happen again if you don't change your child's training routine or activity level. It's important to strengthen the muscles around their knees, particularly their quadriceps and hamstrings. Physiotherapy can help.

There are other things you can do to help your child recover after knee pain. Such as:

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by orthopaedic clinical nurse practitioner, Canterbury DHB. Page created March 2019.

Sources

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Review key: HIBOW-85151