Knee pain is a common—and complex—complaint that affects people of all ages. Pain can result from a recent injury or a known health condition. For others, the cause of knee pain is not as obvious. Whichever the case for you, knee pain should never be ignored. We use our knees for nearly every form of movement. Left untreated, some musculoskeletal conditions affecting the knee can result in chronic pain and long-term disability. How to tell if your knee pain is serious? Let’s look at what might be causing your knee pain and discuss when it’s time to see your healthcare provider.
The knee joint connects the bones of the upper and lower leg. It enables the leg to bend and straighten and turn slightly inward and outward. It is a complex structure comprising cartilage, bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons, all susceptible to problems.
Most causes of knee pain fall into three categories:
Knee pain can be attributed to an acute or sudden injury during physical activity. This can be a direct blow to the knee, like a fall or a hit during contact sports, or through abnormal twisting or stretching of the connective knee structures. These include sprains, strains, and tears.
Knee injuries also happen due to repeated, prolonged pressure on the joint and supporting structures. These are called overuse injuries and they develop and worsen over time, usually from performing the same motions over and over, day after day. Overuse knee injuries are common in running, biking, and skiing.
In some cases, chronic disease and other health conditions that affect the body also show up as knee pain. Bacterial infections in the bone, or the bursa that cushion and lubricate the joint can lead to significant knee pain.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune disease that typically affects the knees, wrists, and hands. Osteoarthritis is another form of arthritis that affects the knees and other joints in the body. Known as the “wear and tear” disease, osteoarthritis is caused by the breakdown of the cartilage between bones. Knee pain, stiffness, and swelling are all associated with osteoarthritis.
Problems with how the structures in and around the knee move and function are another common source of knee pain. For example, pain in the feet or hips may change how you walk. This altered gait can put added stress on the knee joint, causing pain over time. The kneecap (patella) is the triangular bone that covers the front of the knee. If that shifts out of place for any reason, you’re also likely to have some pain.
Common among distance cyclists and runners, iliotibial (IT) band syndrome occurs when the tight band of tissue running along the outside of the upper thigh becomes inflamed where it crosses the bone. IT band syndrome pain typically occurs on the outer part of the knee and can move into the upper leg.
Bumps and bruises are a part of life. For a minor knee injury, it’s best to modify your activity to avoid causing additional damage. Try gentle stretches and self-massage. Over-the-counter pain medications and topical creams can also be used to relieve minor, temporary knee pain.
A knee brace is helpful to stabilize and compress the joint as it heals. Keep a close eye on the injured knee and look for any “red flags” that may indicate a more serious condition that needs medical attention.
Now, let’s talk about potential signs of a more severe knee injury. Seek medical help if:
We’ve shared a few of the many possible conditions and injuries that cause knee pain. The road to relief begins with an accurate diagnosis from a medical professional.
First, your healthcare provider conducts a physical and visual examination to assess the knee for bruising, warmth, swelling, and pain. They check to see how far you can extend your leg, and they move and pull the joint to evaluate the integrity of various structures.
If inflammation or infection are suspected, your provider may order blood tests and/or a procedure to collect fluid from the joint and send it to a lab for analysis. X-rays, MRIs, ultrasounds, and CT scans are also used to detect injuries and disease. Note, imaging can be helpful in confirming a diagnosis but lots of people have changes on and don’t have pain.
Knee pain treatments vary depending upon your symptoms and condition. Some of the self-care options mentioned above may be effective for minor pain. Some patients see good results from therapeutic injections that deliver medications and other substances directly into the joint to reduce pain and inflammation and promote healing.
These injections can be helpful in managing symptoms of a condition, but the body requires specific loading to heal. Surgery may also be medically-advised for more advanced conditions to regain mobility and function in severely injured or degenerated joints.
Physical therapy offers a multitude of benefits for patients with knee pain.
Strategic, supervised exercise under the guidance of a licensed physical therapist is the key to rehabilitating safely and gently. Exercises and stretches to strengthen and lengthen muscles and connective tissues help stabilize the joint and encourage proper, pain-free movement.
Physical therapy helps individuals of all abilities correct movement patterns that can contribute to pain and dysfunction in the knee joint. Manual therapy can be used to improve mobility, decrease swelling, improve muscle control, and decrease pain. .
Patients can also prepare for knee surgery with physical therapy, and rehabilitate after to lower the risk of complications and increase their chance of a smooth recovery. In fact, research confirms that the stronger you are going into a procedure, the more likely you are to retain a higher level of function after.
If you’re wavering about whether or not to see a healthcare provider, remember when it comes to your knees, it’s always better to err on the side of caution, so you don’t wait until your symptoms are severe. If you want to learn more about “prehabilitation” and other physical therapy techniques and treatments for knee pain, find a physical therapy clinic near you.