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Knee pain is incredibly common. In the United States, it’s responsible for about one third of all doctor’s visits for muscle and bone pain. Knee pain is a special problem for athletes over half of all athletes endure it every year.
Some of the most common reasons for knee pain are sprained ligaments, meniscus (cartilage) tears, tendonitis, and runner’s knee. But the knee is a complex joint, and there’s plenty more that can go wrong.
Knee pain facts
- Knee pain is a common problem with many causes, from acute injuries to medical conditions.
- Knee pain can be localized or diffuse throughout the knee.
- Knee pain is often accompanied by physical restriction.
- A thorough physical examination will usually establish the diagnosis of knee pain.
- The treatment of knee pain depends on the underlying cause.
- The prognosis of knee pain is usually good although it might require surgery or other interventions.
Common causes of Knee Pain
- Bursitis. A bursa is a sac of fluid that resides below the skin overlying your joints. Overuse, a fall, or repeated bending and kneeling can irritate the bursa overlying the knee cap (patella), causing pain and swelling. This is known as prepatellar bursitis, but is commonly referred to as ”housemaid’s knee” or ”preacher’s knee” since they are often caused by repetitive kneeling.
- Iliotibial band syndrome. The iliotibial band is a piece of tough tissue that runs from your hip down to the outer part of your knee. If it’s irritated by overuse or other problems, it can become inflamed and cause pain on the outer side of the knee.
- Osgood-Schlatter Disease. This condition causes a painful bump below the knee, where a tendon from the kneecap connects to the shin. It’s usually caused by overuse and irritation at the tendon insertion known as the tibial tubercle. The pain may come and go over time. It’s especially common in teenage boys and girls (ages 13 and 14).
- Osteoarthritis . This condition is a frequent cause of knee pain in athletes and non-athletes alike who are over age 50.
- Dislocated kneecap (or patellar dislocation). In this condition, the kneecap slides out of position, causing knee pain and swelling.
- Patellofemoral pain syndrome. This condition often results from issues associated with muscle imbalance, tightness, and alignment of the legs, rather than an injury. It’s particularly common in teenage girls.
- Patellar tendonitis. This condition results from inflammation of the tendons surrounding your knee. Tendons are tough bands of tissue that connect muscles to your bones. Overuse can make the tendons inflamed and sore. The most common type of patellar tendonitis is called ”jumper’s knee.”
- Loose bodies. Sometimes, a knee injury can break loose cartilage. These pieces can get stuck in the joint, causing it to freeze up and producing pain and swelling.
Symptoms of Knee Pain
The location and severity of knee pain may vary, depending on the cause of the problem. Signs and symptoms that sometimes accompany knee pain include:
- Swelling and stiffness
- Redness and warmth to the touch
- Weakness or instability
- Popping or crunching noises
- Inability to fully straighten the knee
Home Care for Knee Pain
Simple causes of knee pain often clear up on their own while you take steps to manage your symptoms. If knee pain is caused by an accident or injury, you should contact your health care provider.
If your knee pain has just started and is not severe, you can:
- Rest and avoid activities that cause pain. Avoid putting weight on your knee.
- Apply ice. First, apply it every hour for up to 15 minutes. After the first day, apply it at least 4 times per day. Cover your knee with a towel before applying ice. DO NOT fall asleep while using ice. You can leave it on too long and get frostbite.
- Keep your knee raised as much as possible to bring down any swelling.
- Wear an elastic bandage or elastic sleeve, which you can buy at most pharmacies. This may reduce swelling and provide support.
- Take ibuprofen (Motrin) or naproxyn (Aleve) for pain and swelling. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help relieve pain, but not swelling. Talk to your provider before taking these medicines if you have medical problems, or if you have taken them for more than a day or two.
- Sleep with a pillow underneath or between your knees.
Follow these general tips to help relieve and prevent knee pain:
- Always warm up before exercising and cool down after exercising. Stretch the muscles in the front of your thigh (quadriceps) and in the back of your thigh (hamstrings).
- Avoid running down hills walk down instead.
- Bicycle, or better yet, swim instead of run.
- Reduce the amount of exercise you do.
- Run on a smooth, soft surface, such as a track, instead of on cement or pavement.
- Lose weight if you are overweight. Every pound that you are overweight puts about 5 extra pounds of pressure on your kneecap when you go up and down stairs. Ask your provider for help losing weight.
- If you have flat feet, try special shoe inserts and arch supports (orthotics).
- Make sure your running shoes are well made, fit well, and have good cushioning.
Further steps for you to take may depend on the cause of your knee pain.
Risk Factors for Knee Pain
Any activity that could injure the knee is a risk factor for developing knee pain. Doing strenuous athletic activity without proper warm-up can increase risk for knee pain.
Obesity is a risk factor for osteoarthritis of the knee. Smoking is a risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis.
Complications of Knee Pain
The major complication of knee pain is inadequate mobility and ability to walk. Long-term knee pain that is caused by diseases of the knee joint can lead to permanent damage to the knee and loss of function.
Treatment for Knee Pain
Again, treatment for knee pain depends on your specific injury. Mild to moderate injuries that cause knee pain will often resolve on their own, given time. To speed the healing, you can:
- Rest your knee. Give your knee a rest for a few days and avoid intense activity.
- Ice your knee to reduce pain and swelling. Do it for 15-20 minutes every 3-4 hours for 2-3 days or until the pain is gone.
- Compress your knee. Use an elastic bandage, straps or sleeves to keep down swelling or add support.
- Elevate your knee with a pillow under your heel when you’re sitting or lying down to reduce swelling.
- Take anti-inflammatory medications. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like Advil, Aleve, or Motrin, will help with pain and swelling. However, these drugs can have side effects and should be used only occasionally, unless your doctor specifically says otherwise.
- Practice stretching and strengthening exercises if your doctor recommends them.
To resolve some cases of knee pain, you may need a procedure. People with bursitis sometimes need to have excess fluid drawn from the knee. Injections can be given to settle down inflammation for arthritis. Surgery might be needed to reconstruct ligaments or address unstable cartilage injuries.