When your knee locks, finding a quick and effective solution is important. I spent months of my life having my leg become “locked” due to scar tissue from a previous surgery becoming “caught” in my knee joint.

I want to give you the information I wish I had.

This article navigates you through how to unlock a locked knee, exploring causes and outlining immediate actions to alleviate the condition.

Whether it’s advice on emergency care, non-invasive solutions, or when to consider surgery, we’ll help you confidently assess and manage your locked knee joint.

How to Unlock a locked knee

If you are in this situation, I know how important it is to feel like you are moving in the right direction. Below is how I would deal with your situation knowing what I know now, as a clinician.

1. Rest and Ice

Resting and icing the involved knee should always be the first step in this situation. If you don’t stop irritating the joint, it will continue to be as painful as it is now. Cryotherapy helps reduce the swelling in the area and allows your knee to begin healing.

2. Compression and Elevation

Once you have stopped irritating your joint, you can expedite the healing by continuing to push swelling out of the area. The best way to do this is by elevating your knee above the level of your heart and applying compression.

These first four methods (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) are crucial for optimal healing.

3. Gentle Movement

This step is important AFTER you have spent time on step #1 and #2. If pain subsides, start moving your joint. Move the knee in a slow and controlled fashion to prevent any irritation.

Remember to start small, even a little bit of movement will get the blood pumping through your leg to help the healing process. Here are a couple of the movements I did in this phase of healing.

4. Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

Pain medication can be utilized in the early phases of healing for comfort, but you do not want this use to become a crutch.

I have worked with multiple patients who became dependent on pain medications, and while they can be a valuable resource during acute healing, it is notable that they do have risks involved with them. Some literature is even pointing to NSAIDs making weak joints worse.

5. Physical Therapy

The above tips can generally be done at or around the same time. If you do not see marked improvement utilizing the first four tips, I highly recommend you go to physical therapy.

My wife is a physical therapist, and she has helped me through tons of joint-related issues, including when I had a locked knee. Physical therapists are a great resource (don’t tell her I told you) to help you strengthen and heal the joint through multiple interventions and exercises.

6. Get professional Opinion

If you have been attending physical therapy for a few weeks and notice you aren’t progressing, I’d ask your therapist to see what they think. If they think you may have a true “locked knee,” you will need an appointment with your primary care physician.

Your physician can confirm if a loose body is caught in your joint by medical imaging like an MRI.

7. Surgery

If all other options fail and your physician confirms you have something physically blocking the movement of your knee, you will likely need surgery. This was the situation I found myself in.

The necessary surgeries are arthroscopic and, while unpleasant, are minor compared to other common knee surgeries like anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction or total knee replacement surgery.

Arthroscopic surgeries use small incisions and cameras so that the surgeon doesn’t have to make as large of incisions to see the affected areas. This technique is a considerable improvement over the mostly unused “open surgeries” of the past.

Understanding Locked Knee: A Brief Overview

How to Unlock a Locked Knee

A locked knee joint is a condition where the full bending or straightening of the knee is limited, causing significant difficulty and knee pain.

An injury, inflammation, or mechanical problems in the knee joint can cause this. It dramatically affects daily activities such as sitting, standing, and squatting.

Locked knees are classified into two types:

  1. true locked knee
  2. pseudo locked knee

The first occurs from issues within the joint itself, like a torn meniscus or loose body preventing knee movement.

Muscle spasms or tightness due to conditions like muscle strain or arthritis typically cause pseudo-locked knees.

Distinguishing between these types is important as it determines how treatment should proceed.

Immediate Action for a Locked Knee

When the knee joint becomes locked, it is important to take immediate action to relieve discomfort and prevent harm. Here are a few steps that can be taken.

  1. Stop any physical activity and allow the joint to rest.
  2. Adjust your position by sitting up straight and gently extending (straightening) the affected leg for some relief.
  3. Utilize an ice pack on the knee joint to alleviate pain and decrease swelling. Reusable or gel-based packs with cold compression abilities may be particularly effective.

Over-the-counter pain relievers can also provide quick relief from symptoms. Aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen are commonly used for this purpose.

It is crucial not to delay seeking medical attention because ignoring this condition could result in severe complications if left untreated.

When to Seek Emergency Care

Experiencing severe knee pain, particularly when accompanied by the inability to put weight on the leg, may indicate severe conditions like a fracture or injury that require immediate medical attention.

Delaying treatment can worsen the issue and lead to larger tears in the meniscus, arthritis development, and instability of the knee joint, all potential sources of chronic problems and severe knee pain triggers.

In cases with severe pain and locking of the affected knee joint, while walking or standing, it is crucial to stop using that limb immediately and seek prompt medical care.

If you are unable to bear through discomfort or if an accident has caused sudden trauma around this area, specifically causing distressful symptoms like unbearable agony in one’s knees.

Heading straight into an emergency room visit makes sense because an appropriate diagnosis will be made accurately, and initiating remedies ASAP usually results in better results.


Knee pain affects approximately 25% of adults, and its prevalence has increased almost 65% over the past 20 years, accounting for nearly 4 million primary care visits annually.

True Locked Knee vs. Pseudo Locked Knee

Understanding the underlying cause is important in unlocking a locked knee.

A true case of knee locking happens when an obstruction within the joint, such as a torn meniscus or loose body, physically prevents movement. Conditions like arthritis can also lead to this type of knee locking by restricting proper joint mobility.

This is the type of locked knee I had. I had a large piece of scar tissue from a previous surgery that became lodged in my joint capsule, making it difficult (and nearly impossible) to move.

In contrast, pseudo-locked knees do not have any physical blockages in the joint but are caused by muscle spasms and severe pain, which temporarily restricts movement.

Pain around or within the knee joint can cause spasms resulting in what feels like a locked knee without any actual obstructions – called pseudo-knee-locking.

It’s important to distinguish between true and pseudo-locked knees because their treatment methods vary significantly.

While surgery may be required for cases with physical obstructions, non-invasive approaches such as pain management techniques and physiotherapy often yield positive results for patients experiencing false knee locking.

Non-Invasive Solutions for Unlocking Your Knee

Non-invasive options for managing a locked knee involve addressing pain, inflammation, and limited movement. This is typically achieved through the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and therapeutic techniques like rest and ice therapy. Commonly used over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or NSAIDs can help alleviate discomfort and reduce symptoms.

Resting the affected area while applying cold compresses is particularly effective in unlocking a knee because it can decrease swelling, soothe pain, and ultimately help restore mobility.

The success of these approaches relies on identifying the root cause behind the lockage. These methods suit pseudo-locked knees where muscle spasms or painful sensations trigger this condition.

The Role of Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is essential to recovering and treating a locked knee joint.

Focusing on strengthening exercises and stretching can increase mobility. This plays a crucial role in reducing swelling, promoting the early ability to achieve full range of motion, and gradually progressing to activities that will enhance stability.

For patients with true locked knees, physical therapy offers therapeutic exercises designed to strengthen muscles and enhance flexibility of the quadriceps and hamstring muscles. It also aids in healing while decreasing the likelihood of future locking episodes.

Physical therapy for true locked knees generally occurs after the surgical removal of the loose body prevents knee movement. Physical therapy following surgery helped me personally, and I haven’t had any other issues since!

On the other hand, pseudo-locked knees may require rest, ice application, and anti-inflammatory medications to reduce swelling, which is essential for symptom relief.

When Surgery Is Necessary

A locked knee results from an injury to structures within the knee, such as a torn meniscus or loose body, or due to conditions like fractures, dislocations, bursitis, or tendonitis. The cause will determine if surgery may be necessary.

The decision for surgical intervention is based on careful consideration of a patient’s medical history and thorough physical examination that identifies mechanical causes for the locking.

Arthroscopic surgery is commonly used in cases where surgery is deemed appropriate. Recovery time can vary greatly depending on individual factors and underlying reasons for the locked knee. Ranging from several weeks up to multiple months.

I was very sore for a couple of weeks, but I was as good as new after that!

Recovery and Rehabilitation Post-Treatment

After receiving acute treatment for a locked knee, the recovery and rehabilitation process is multifaceted.

The initial stage of rehab focuses on exercises to enhance strength, including raising and straightening the affected leg, contracting thigh muscles, and striving toward full extension and flexion of the knee.

Continued involvement in strengthening routines and physical therapy is crucial for regaining complete mobility.

As one begins to regain strength and movement ability after healing from their injury or surgery, special attention should be paid to gradually reintroducing normal activities under medical supervision to avoid re-injury.

To avoid setbacks during this process, it’s important that precautions such as:

  • Protecting the injured knee from harm
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Apply ice packs to reduce swelling

To achieve optimal results during rehabilitation, patients must adhere strictly to their prescribed treatment plan given by healthcare providers. While it may seem irritating and inconvenient at times (believe me, I know), it will produce the best results.

Ensuring compliance with range-of-motion exercises while maintaining weight-bearing guidelines, if any were provided, will significantly aid the triumphant return of function without the recurrence of future complications.

Building Muscle Strength

Developing muscle strength is a crucial step in the recovery process. Strengthening the muscles surrounding the knee can reduce the risk of future knee injuries and enhance the overall function of the joint.

Here are some exercises to help strengthen these leg muscles:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Side steps (also known as “monster walks”)
  • Tibialis raises
  • Nordic hamstring curls

The quadriceps, hamstrings, and tibialis anterior, which play essential roles in maintaining knee stability, offer protection during physical activities such as sports.

When beginning new exercises, it is recommended to:

  • Perform five repetitions at a modest weight

For those unused to training, break up your exercise sessions into smaller portions throughout the day and set small achievable goals to build momentum.

Aim for gradual improvement daily on your knee-specific workouts.

Returning to Normal Activities

Recovery from a locked knee is a gradual process that typically takes one to two months, depending on the severity of your situation.

Throughout this time, it’s essential to follow certain precautions such as protecting the injured knee, getting enough rest, using ice to reduce swelling, and sticking to a clinician-provided treatment plan, including exercises for range of motion and stability.

By adhering to these steps, most people can return to their normal activities within six or eight weeks.

Remembering that everyone has different recovery timelines is crucial, and being patient is key. Listen carefully to your body without rushing during the healing journey.

Preventative Measures to Avoid Locked Knees

Taking steps to prevent knee issues is more effective than dealing with them after they occur. Take it from me.

By following preventive measures, the chances of experiencing a locked knee can be reduced.

One way to do this is by maintaining a healthy weight, which helps manage pain and lowers the risk of osteoarthritis and other knee problems that could lead to knee locking.

Footwear choice also has an impact on overall knee health.

Wearing ill-fitting shoes or shoes such as high heels that increase pressure on the knees while walking can contribute towards worsening symptoms and progression of conditions like osteoarthritis, ultimately resulting in a locked knee situation.

To avoid these risks, wearing shoes with proper cushioning, which are explicitly designed to keep individuals with joint issues in mind and offer relief from the pain associated with movements involving the knees, is recommended.

Last Thoughts

We’ve taken a trip through the twisty world of locked knees – you know when your knee decides to play ‘red light, green light’ without your permission. I barely liked that game as a kid; it is even less appealing as an adult.

We’ve covered the whats and whys, the oh-no-my-knee’s-locked-what-do-I-do’s, and the different ways to fix it.

Physical therapy is a biggie for getting back on track, but sometimes, you gotta call in the pros for surgery (been there, done that, got the arthroscopic badge of honor).

Building muscle is like your knee’s personal bodyguard, keeping it safe and sound. And remember to play it smart and dodge those locked knee sneak attacks with simple prevention tips.

Take it from someone who’s been in the knee-deep trenches – your knees are your trusty sidekicks for life, so treat ’em right!

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I unlock my knee at home?

To release a locked knee at home, gently manipulate the joint until it unlocks. If this does not alleviate the issue, it is recommended to seek assistance from a professional to ensure the correct alignment and functionality of the knee.

Your situation may warrant surgery if it is physically locked.

How long does a locked knee last?

A locked knee may persist for several seconds or longer, depending on the reason behind it. It is crucial to seek medical help to resolve this issue and address any underlying concerns with the affected knee.

Can a locked knee heal on its own?

There are situations where knee locking can recover naturally over time without needing medical treatment, as long as the knee injury is not too severe. This gradual healing process may allow the affected knee to regain functionality and mobility without outside intervention. Surgery or other forms of medical treatment are possibly necessary in some instances of a locked knee.

Why is a locked knee an emergency?

When a knee is locked, it requires immediate attention as it can cause contractures and flexion deformities that may lead to short-term or long-term disability. Prompt treatment is crucial to avoid any potential complications from arising.

It is essential not to delay addressing a locked knee as failure could result in severe consequences such as a broken knee.

What is a locked knee?

A locked knee is identified by the incapacity to fully extend or flex the knee, leading to significant restrictions in mobility. This condition can arise from different reasons, including a knee injury, a musculature issue that prevents movement due to pain, or mechanical problems within the knee joint.

About the Author

Hi there! I’m Dr. Keagen Hadley, OTD, OTR/L. Straight out of the University of Mary, I’m all about blending my know-how in knee health, well-being, and medical technology. As a licensed occupational therapy doc, I’m here to translate complex concepts into clear, actionable insights – whether it’s knee care or groundbreaking healthcare tech.

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