Knee bursitis

Bursitis is a condition where the small sacs of fluid in your joints become swollen and inflamed.

About knee bursitis

The bones of our joints are separated by small jelly-like sacs of fluid called bursa – these act as cushions and help reduce friction.

When a bursa is damaged, the tissue becomes swollen and produces too much fluid. This condition is called bursitis, and affects the movement of the joint.

In the knee, there are several bursae and any of them can become swollen.

Causes of knee bursitis

Bursae in the knee may become swollen and inflamed as a result of an injury such as a blow to the front or side of the knee.

Wear and tear – particularly kneeling on hard surfaces – may also cause swelling, along with conditions such as arthritis, gout and infection.

There are different types of knee bursitis.

Prepatellar bursitis (housemaid's knee)

Prepatellar bursitis is commonly known as housemaid's knee and is the irritation of the thin bursa in between the kneecap and the skin. It's most often caused by kneeling and is seen in carpet layers, plumbers or gardeners. It can also be caused by a direct blow to the front of the knee – and is common in contact sports.

Baker's cyst

Also called a popliteal cyst, this is the swelling of the bursa at the back of the knee joint. It can be caused by a blow to the knee or other conditions such as arthritis and gout.

Symptoms of knee bursitis

There are common symptoms for bursitis:

  • pain during the day
  • tenderness and heat
  • swelling of the knee
  • occasional locking or clicking
  • fluid, redness and fever if caused by infection

If you have prepatellar bursitis, you will experience rapid swelling on the front of your kneecap.

The symptoms for a Baker's cyst include pain in the back of the knee and calf. A buildup of fluid can cause the bursa to burst, leading to pain swelling and redness in your calf.

Diagnosis of knee bursitis

After assessing your symptoms, your doctor might recommend MRI, X-ray or ultrasound tests to rule out other problems such as tumours, bulges in the blood vessels, cartilage damage, arthritis or fractures.

Treatment for bursitis

You can manage bursitis yourself in the following ways:

  • monitor your activity: avoid activities that worsen your symptoms. Low-impact exercise, such as cycling or swimming are a good option
  • ice – apply at regular intervals three or four times a day for 20 minutes at a time
  • elevation - raise your leg whenever you can
  • use compression bandages
  • anti inflammatories - medications such as ibuprofen help manage pain and inflammation

If the swelling is severe, your doctor might recommend that you have the fluid in the bursa drained (aspirated).

You may also be given an injection of cortisol — which is a powerful anti-inflammatory.

Surgery is sometimes necessary if the bursitis doesn't respond to the less invasive treatments.

Your surgeon will remove the bursa. You should regain flexibility in a few days and make a full recovery within a few weeks.

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Published: 14 January 2020 | Review: 14 January 2023

Disclaimer: This information is published by Cromwell Hospital and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence and experience from over 30 years of treating patients. It has been peer reviewed by Cromwell Hospital doctors. The content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. If you have any feedback on the content of this patient information document please email or telephone 020 7460 5901.