Swelling of the whole knee or a region of the knee is typically a result of an accumulation of fluid.


General knee swelling coming on suddenly

Sudden knee swelling is usually consequent on an injury. The swelling in this case ilikely to be from bleeding (haemarthrosis), and the patient's story and the investigations should reveal the cause, such as a torn cruciate ligament or meniscus or a fracture inside the joint.

If there has been NO injury, the swelling might be due to an inflammatory condition such as rheumatoid arthritis and the fluid is probably joint fluid (effusion). Joint infection is uncommmon but may follow surgery or other interference and the patient may experience sudden hot painful swelling, and is likely to feel very unwell.

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General knee swelling coming on gradually

Gradual knee swelling affecting the whole joint is likely to be osteoarthritis or other degeneration such as a degenerative meniscus.

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Localised swelling is often from overuse, such as prolonged or repetitive kneeling. Examples are 'carpet-fitters knee', 'clergyman's knee', 'housemaid's knee'. These are usually due to 'bursitis' where a normal soft tissue cavity becomes inflamed and fills with fluid.

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Swelling and the knee capsule

capsule of the knee - deflated

The deflated knee capsule.

capsule of the knee  inflated with effusion or haemarthrosis

The capsule inflated with fluid or blood..

The knee joint is enclosed in a baggy water-tight capsule, which can fill up like a balloon when there is a lot of fluid in the knee. Such fluid can be drained with a needle and syringe.

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Dr Sheila Strover (Editor)
BSc (Hons), MB BCh, MBA

See biography...

Sudden general swelling -

Slow general swelling -

Localised swelling -

From the Experts -