How to Relieve Knee Pain When Sitting

Learn what tips and exercises physical therapists recommend if you experience knee pain when sitting.

Published Date: May 30, 2024

How to Relieve Knee Pain When Sitting

Learn what tips and exercises physical therapists recommend if you experience knee pain when sitting.

Published Date: May 30, 2024

How to Relieve Knee Pain When Sitting

Learn what tips and exercises physical therapists recommend if you experience knee pain when sitting.

Published Date: May 30, 2024

How to Relieve Knee Pain When Sitting

Learn what tips and exercises physical therapists recommend if you experience knee pain when sitting.

Published Date: May 30, 2024
Table of Contents

Knee pain when you’re sitting can be a little surprising — after all, you’re not technically doing anything — but it’s actually a common occurrence. “I have a lot of patients who travel often, especially by plane or car, who complain of knee pain when sitting,” says Julianne Payton, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “When you sit in a tight space for an extended period, and you don’t have the opportunity to stretch out your legs, your knee muscles and tendons can stiffen up, causing pain.”

While knee pain when sitting often occurs among people who have or have had past knee injuries or issues, such as knee tendinitis or arthritis, it can happen to anyone, adds Dr. Payton. Thankfully, it’s easily treatable with knee strengthening and stretching exercises, as well as physical therapy and lifestyle modifications.

Read on to learn more about what causes knee pain when sitting, and how to prevent and treat it — especially with exercises from our Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Julianne Payton, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Payton is a Hinge Health physical therapist with 8 years of experience and specializes in ergonomics and workplace injuries.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Maureen Lu, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Lu is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with over 17 years of clinical experience.

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Common Causes of Knee Pain When Sitting

There’s one reason why your knees can hurt after sitting for too long: Your body simply isn’t designed to be sedentary for extended periods of time, points out Dr. Payton. “We’re made for movement, so if you sit for a long time it can cause the knee joint itself along with the surrounding muscles and tendons to stiffen up, which makes sitting uncomfortable,” she explains. In fact, research shows that people who sit for more than 10 hours each day are 30 percent more likely to experience knee pain than those who are on their feet more.

There are certain conditions that can make knee pain when sitting more common, notes Dr. Payton. These include:

  • Knee arthritis. As you age, the smooth, spongy cartilage that cushions your joints changes, which can contribute to pain, aching, and stiffness, especially if you don’t move your knees for a period of time.

  • Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (runner’s knee). This is a broad term used to describe pain in the front of the knee and around the kneecap. It’s often caused by overuse; if you ramp up activity a little too quickly, it can cause knee tendons to become inflamed. About 50 percent of people with runner’s knee say they experience pain when they sit for long periods of time.

  • Weak or tight leg muscles from lack of exercise, which, over time, can lead to knee pain. “The stronger your leg muscles are, the better stability you’ll have in your knee joint,” says Dr. Payton.

Knee Pain When Sitting: A Hinge Health Perspective

If you have knee pain when you sit, you may be more hesitant to move. But you shouldn’t be. It’s simply a sign from your body that it’s time to move or change positions. “I always reassure my patients that most often nothing is wrong with their knees,” says Dr. Payton.

If you notice knee pain when bending or straightening your leg, activity can actually make your knees feel better. Muscles become weaker and tighter when you don’t use them. As a result, everything you do — including sitting — becomes harder. “When you do knee exercises to make your knee muscles stronger and more flexible, you’ll be able to tolerate sitting for longer periods,” reassures Dr. Payton.

That’s why movement is often the fastest way to healing. As Hinge Health physical therapists like to say, a strong muscle is a flexible muscle. The more flexible and mobile your knees are, the less likely you are to experience muscle tightness that can lead to pain when sitting.

Treatment For Knee Pain When Sitting

The following tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists and medical doctors can provide relief for knee pain when sitting.

  • Take movement breaks. If your knees hurt when you sit, try to stand up, stretch, and walk around every 15 to 30 minutes, advises Dr. Payton. This will encourage blood flow to your knee joints and prevent them from stiffening. “It’s almost like a reset for your knees,” says Dr. Payton. If you are chained to your desk, just straighten and bend your knee for about 10 seconds to get some nourishing movement in.

  • Tweak your sitting position. There’s no best sitting position for knee pain. But if you tend to sit cross legged, try keeping your feet on the floor, and your back straight against your chair — this position can take some pressure off your knees, says Dr. Payton. You may also find that a footrest helps, too.

  • Work on building strength. The exercises below will both stretch and strengthen knee and leg muscles, which can help to minimize pain. Exercise therapy itself also pumps nourishing blood, oxygen, and nutrients to your knee joints and cartilage to increase their strength and flexibility. If you still have pain after a couple weeks of doing these exercises, see a physical therapist. They can evaluate your knee function and design a personalized exercise plan. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

  • Try using heat. It can help to relax tight and stiff muscles around your knee joint because it increases blood flow to the area, says Dr. Payton. If knee pain from sitting is due to a recent knee injury, however, you’ll want to apply ice for the first 48 to 72 hours to reduce inflammation and swelling.

  • Take over the counter (OTC) medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for knee pain when sitting. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take them, based on your medical history.

Exercises for Knee Pain Relief

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Quad Stretch
  • Hamstring Stretch
  • Straight Leg Raise
  • Squats
  • Reverse Lunge
  • Deep Squats

The above exercises are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists to both treat and prevent knee pain when sitting. They build strength to support the knee joint, and improve flexibility. This will make it less likely that your knee muscles will tighten up when you sit down.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Apply Pressure

Ever tried to get up and found your knee muscles so tight that it was tough to stand? To prevent this, Dr. Payton recommends that, while sitting, straighten your leg a bit and press your foot into a nearby wall. “Try to straighten your leg out, pushing against the wall with about 50% of your strength for five to six seconds,” she advises. This will get blood pumping to your knee joint and help lubricate it so you can stand and move with ease.

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you. 

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Collins, N. J., Vicenzino, B., van der Heijden, R. A., & van Middelkoop, M. (2016). Pain During Prolonged Sitting Is a Common Problem in Persons With Patellofemoral Pain. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 46(8), 658–663. doi:10.2519/jospt.2016.6470

  2. Lee, S.-H., Son, C., Yeo, S., & Ha, I.-H. (2019). Cross-sectional analysis of self-reported sedentary behaviors and chronic knee pain among South Korean adults over 50 years of age in KNHANES 2013-2015. BMC Public Health, 19(1). doi:10.1186/s12889-019-7653-9

  3. Deveza, L. A., & Bennell, K. (2019). Management of knee osteoarthritis. UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/management-of-knee-osteoarthritis 

  4. O’Connor, F. G., & Mulvaney, S. W. (2019). Patellofemoral pain. UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/patellofemoral-pain