Bodyworks: Baker's Cyst

How to recognise it, how to overcome it

Posted: 5 June 2000
by Patrick Milroy

A bursa is a space between soft tissues and/or bone and is filled with fluid which acts to reduce friction between adjoining surfaces. However, if it becomes damaged, more fluid is formed, causing it to swell, become inflamed and sometimes infected.

You cannot fail to notice a swelling which develops behind the knee and probably prevents full bending and straightening. The pressure causes aching and tenderness, worse after training, and sometimes the area feels hot, or inflamed.

Comparing the back of one knee with the other demonstrates obvious clinical signs and your doctor will probably discover a decreased range of movement. Baker’s cysts are sometimes secondary to other disease, so he will also look for rheumatoid or osteoarthritis in the knee and other joints, ascertain how far down into the calf the bursa extends, and possibly be able to detect fluid in the knee joint with which the cyst is connected.

Medical investigations
The best way to confirm the diagnosis is to inject the bursa with a contrast medium and x-ray it. This shows the connection with the knee joint and the extent of the cyst.

What else could it be?
Other bursae can form behind the insertion of the hamstring muscles and care must be taken to be sure that the swelling is not that of an arterial aneurysm which, in theory, could burst.

You cannot go wrong with RICE, and an anti-inflammatory will also help to reduce the swelling. Cut down your mileage.

Medical treatment
Any joint disease or degeneration will need appropriate treatment, but surgical removal of the bursa is not commonly needed. If the bursa bursts, calf pain far exceeds that which one would expect, and rest and strong painkillers, with physiotherapy to mobilise the stiffened limb are invariably necessary.

Can you run through it?/Recovery time
Although the swelling may take months to resolve, some running is probably possible, but always bear in mind the risk of rupture of the sac of the bursa.

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Discuss this article

I'm just wondering if anyone has experienced stiffness and slight swelling in the back of their knee. I have not yet been to the doctor, but the symptoms of Baker's Cysts seem to be very similar to my knee's current condition: stiffness when running, resulting in puffiness and swelling in the back of my knee. I am supposed to be running a marathon in a month, but this has halted my training. Has anyone had any recovery success with this? I do plan to see a doctor.
Posted: 16/09/2006 at 00:21

Hello. I've just been diagnosed with a Baker's cyst. I first became aware of it whilst I was driving. Later on inspection, I noticed a swelling at the bad of my leg behind my knee. It is achey and very painful at the moment and much to my annoyance,  cannot do much exercise as it hurts too much.

I am using some painkilling/anti-inflamatory gel from the dr, but if it doesn't work, have to have a scan and possibly drainage and or surgery. 

Have you got a lump? It sound's like a Baker's cyst, but to be sure, visit your gp.

Good luck.

Posted: 04/12/2010 at 13:11

i woke up this morning with extreme stiffness in my leg. it hurts real bad to extend out and I even have some difficultly walking normal. Im only 17 and I am an athlete. Do you think this is caused from just a lot of running (soreness) or is it something like a Baker's Cyst?
Posted: 27/02/2011 at 23:15

The symptom you describe M G20 sounds like what I have if I have had a really bad cramp in my leg in my sleep.

However if you even mildly suspect that it could be Baker's Cyst then you should go and see a doctor, the symptoms are very similar to blood clots symptoms so it need to be ruled out. I had stiffness and swelling to my left lower leg in 2004, even though I was only 25 I was straight away sent for ultrasound to rule out blood clots due to family history. Also Baker's cyst can cause blood clots. For me rest, elevation, heat and anti inflammatories made it go away after a while.

Posted: 28/02/2011 at 20:35

I am not a runner, but have been researching 'Baker's Cyst'.

I too woke up one morning with acute pain & stiffness in my knee, I walked through it which caused mine to rupture, this is extremely painful & very debilitating, it feels like extreme cramp in your calf.  I understand this is not common & it is most important that you get it checked out for DVT, which carries a higher risk with Baker's Cyst.

I have been resting for 5 weeks & am still very restricted in moving & in a great deal of pain.

Posted: 07/03/2012 at 10:11

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