Overview

Since our knees help us move around every day, they’re prone to injuries, damage, pain, and discomfort. A wide spectrum of factors causes pain and discomfort in this specific area and Baker’s cyst is one of them. The main objective of this post is to shed more light on this cyst, its causes and symptoms, and how to prevent or treat it. Learn more about Baker’s cyst and why it’s important to be proactive about its management.

What is a Baker’s cyst?

Baker’s cyst, also known as a popliteal cyst, is a fluid-filled swelling or sac that develops in the popliteal fossa, a diamond-shaped space behind your knee joint, and can sometimes become painful. The condition is named after Dr. William Morrant Baker, a 19th-century surgeon who first described it.

Baker’s cyst usually affects adults between the ages of 35 and 70 years[1], but children aged four to seven years can develop it, too. One study found[2] that the prevalence of Baker’s cyst in people with knee pain is 25.8%.

Although this cyst isn’t dangerous, it can cause discomfort and negatively affect a person’s quality of life. Treatment of the underlying cause helps manage this cyst and the discomfort it produces.

Symptoms of a Baker’s cyst

Sometimes people with Baker’s cyst don’t experience pain behind knee, which is why they don’t notice the presence of a cyst. When symptoms[3] occur, they usually include the following:

  • Swelling behind the knee (sometimes in the leg too)
  • Discomfort, tightness, or pain in the knee
  • Stiffness
  • Limited range of motion e.g. trouble bending or fully flexing the knee

In some cases, the Baker’s cyst may rupture and cause fluid to be released down the calf. When that happens, a person with this cyst may experience pain and swelling.

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Causes of Baker’s cyst

The main cause of Baker’s cyst is the buildup of synovial fluid in the back of the knee. Synovial fluid is the thick liquid found between your joints whose function is to cushion and decrease bone friction during movements. Sometimes, excessive amounts of synovial fluid are produced, the fluid accumulates and a cyst is formed.

1. Swelling in the knee

A wide range of causes are associated with swelling in the knee ranging from injuries to diseases and infection. A buildup of synovial fluid in and around the joint is one of many reasons people experience back of knee pain. The accumulation of synovial fluid increases the pressure that forces the fluid to squeeze into the back of the knee. As a result, an affected person develops a Baker’s cyst.

2. Arthritis

Arthritis is a term that refers to conditions associated with pain, inflammation, and swelling of the joints and reduces their flexibility and mobility. The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). These cause inflammation and may result in increased production of synovial fluid on the knee. Studies show[4] that Baker’s cyst associated with knee OA contributes to the burden of knee symptoms. A study confirms[5] that Rheumatoid arthritis is linked to increased synovial fluid in the knee and may lead to the formation of a Baker’s cyst with a one-way valve mechanism developed in the affected knee

3. Injury

Knee injuries occur due to various factors, including awkward movements, falls and collisions, overuse, excessive force, and accidents. More often than not, athletes experience these injuries which account for 41% of all sports injuries[6]. Trauma or injury to the knee, such as cartilage tears or other forms of structural damage, can trigger an inflammatory response and lead to higher synovial fluid production. When that happens, a person experiences inner knee pain and develops a Baker’s cyst.

4. Gout

Gout is a complex type of arthritis indicated by sudden and severe attacks of pain, redness, and swelling in joints, especially the big toe. Gout affects around 9.2 million people[7] in the U.S. and is more common in men than women.

Gout causes Baker’s cyst and symptoms such as pain behind knee by causing the buildup of uric acid crystals[8]. The accumulation of uric acid crystals could contribute to inflammation and swelling, which are indicative of a Baker’s cyst.

How is Baker’s cyst diagnosed?

Make sure to see a doctor if you experience swelling and back of knee pain. Sometimes, a physical exam is enough to diagnose Baker’s cyst.

Since the symptoms of Baker’s cyst are similar to those of other medical problems (tumor, blood clot, and aneurysm), the doctor may order several tests to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms. Therefore, patients may need an ultrasound, x-ray, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Once the doctor confirms the diagnosis, they recommend the most suitable Baker’s cyst treatment.

Baker’s cyst treatment and home treatment

In some cases, no specific Baker’s cyst treatment is necessary because the cyst disappears on its own. A patient may need to avoid activities that cause mild symptoms. Larger cysts don’t go away on their own and tend to require a more specific treatment. The treatment approaches are described below.

1. Fluid draining

Fluid draining, also known as needle aspiration, is the act of draining the accumulated fluid on the knee. The doctor may recommend this approach to reduce the size of the cyst and manage symptoms such as pain and discomfort. Sometimes the procedure is performed with ultrasound guidance.

One study found[9] that aspiration of symptomatic Baker’s cyst under ultrasound guidance followed by therapeutic injection of Bupivacaine and DepoMedrone causes a considerable reduction in inner knee pain symptoms.

Fluid draining helps because it alleviates pressure that the buildup of synovial fluid causes in the back of your knee. However, this isn’t always the sole Baker’s cyst treatment for larger cysts. It is necessary to manage the underlying cause to prevent the recurrence of the cyst.

2. Physical therapy

Physical therapy is a type of treatment approach that focuses on restoring functional movements following disease, trauma, injury, or other causes. Patients with this cyst may need physical therapy to manage symptoms such as back of knee pain and limited range of motion. Rehabilitation exercises strengthen muscles around the knee and improve flexibility and stability of the joint, and the patient’s mobility improves[10] as well.

3. Medication

The doctor may recommend medications such as ibuprofen (e.g. Advil) or non-prescription pain relievers such as acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) to alleviate pain and inflammation. People with larger cysts and more severe pain behind knee may need an injection of steroid medication to decrease inflammation. Medications may decrease the size of the cyst, too.

Other than injections and pain relievers, patients may also want to try dietary supplements. Natural products such as Flexoplex Joint Health Supplement are specifically formulated to relieve joint pain and stiffness, lower inflammation, and improve flexibility and mobility.

4. Keep it cold

Applying ice packs, cold gels or cold compressions is a great way to reduce pain and swelling if you experience inner knee pain and discomfort due to your cyst. Put an ice pack on the affected area for 10 to 20 minutes. Use a towel between the ice pack and your skin to avoid skin damage.

5. Rest your leg

Rest is an important part of Baker’s cyst treatment since rest is necessary for reducing irritation and inflammation around your knee. Try to strike a balance between getting some rest and performing exercises recommended by your physical therapist. Ideally, you should avoid activities that worsen the discomfort it causes.

Resting your leg falls into the well-known R.I.C.E. principle, which stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. When going to sleep, make sure to keep the affected leg elevated to avoid discomfort and pain.

Bakers cyst

Complications associated with popliteal cysts

When unresolved or poorly managed, Baker’s cyst can lead to complications such as:

  • Prolonged swelling: the cyst itself can cause persistent swelling behind the knee, thereby reducing mobility and increasing discomfort. As the cyst enlarges due to the accumulating fluid on the knee, a patient may notice redness in the affected area. Sometimes the cyst can rupture and cause warmth in the calf.
  • Severe pain: the cyst can produce severe pain, especially when it grows larger. The rupturing of a cyst can also cause severe, sharp inner knee pain. Pain can further reduce mobility as a person starts avoiding moving his leg.
  • Complications from related injuries, such as torn cartilage: sometimes the cyst develops secondary to knee injuries or conditions such as torn cartilage. If left untreated, these issues may worsen and cause ongoing pain, instability of the knee joint, and potential damage to the surrounding structures.

Baker’s cyst prevention tips

The most effective Baker’s cyst prevention method is to do your best to prevent injuries in the knee area. These tips can help you out:

  • Stretch and get some rest after physical activity
  • Stretch and warm up before workouts or sports activities
  • Wear protective equipment
  • Don’t exercise or play through pain
  • Treat injuries to your legs, especially your knee, promptly
  • When it comes to the prevention of Baker’s cyst and symptoms such as back of knee pain, it’s important to manage underlying conditions such as arthritis as recommended by your doctor. Engage in exercises that strengthen muscles around the knee joint. Be careful with activities that involve repetitive stress on the knees, and always maintain good posture.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    How do Baker’s cysts form?

    Baker’s cysts form when excess synovial fluid accumulates and bulges into a sac behind the knee joint. Various causes increase the production of synovial fluid in the knee, including arthritis and knee injuries.

    How can I heal my Baker’s cyst?

    You can heal the cyst and symptoms such as pain behind knee by getting some rest, applying ice packs or cold compresses, and taking pain relievers. For larger cysts, the doctor may recommend fluid draining, corticosteroid injections, and physical therapy. Managing the underlying cause of a cyst can also help alleviate its symptoms.

    Is walking good for Baker's cyst?

    Walking is good for Baker’s cyst because it helps maintain joint mobility. Walking strengthens surrounding muscles, too. This can help alleviate inner knee pain. While walking can be beneficial during the recovery process, you need to be cautious. Make sure to avoid overexertion.

    What is the best exercise for Baker’s cyst?

    The best exercise for Baker’s cyst is any exercise that improves the strength and mobility of your knee area. Good options are hamstring stretch, stretching calf muscles, passive knee bend, quadriceps stretch with a towel, and straight leg raises. You can also try swimming and water-based activities.

    What activities to avoid with Baker’s cyst?

    People with Baker’s cyst should avoid high-impact activities such as running or jumping and activities that form excessive stress on the knees. You should limit prolonged squatting or kneeling because they can worsen discomfort. Try not to do lunges and hamstring curls until you recover.

    Takeaway

    Baker’s cyst is an uncomfortable growth behind the knee that limits a person’s range of motion and causes pain and discomfort. The symptoms worsen as the cyst grows. See a doctor and adhere to his treatment recommendations. Get some rest, elevate your leg, and perform light exercises and stretches to improve the stability and mobility of the affected joint.