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Experiencing pain in one or both knees is common. The knee supports body weight and enables various movements, but normal wear-and-tear, injury or disease can lead to a breakdown in the bones or tissues in the joint. The following sections give an overview of the causes of knee pain, how knee pain is diagnosed, and common treatments.
Understanding the Knee Joint
The knee has several parts, and any part can develop a problem. The joint is between the upper and lower leg bones and provides the flexibility and range of motion that enable activities like walking, running, turning, jumping, squatting, and bending. The knee joint can also rotate.
Since the knee joint plays an important role in most movements, even minor knee pain restricts activities. The knee is made up of:
- Bones – joint is where the bottom of the femur (thigh bone) and top of the tibia (shin bone) meet, while the fibula provides ligament attachments; the patella (kneecap) is the fourth bone
- Ligaments – the four ligaments in the knee are tough fibrous tissues that connect and hold the bones in place and add stability to the joint
- Tendons – tough fibrous bands connect the bones to muscles; two of the most important tendons are the quadriceps tendon that connects the front thigh muscle to the kneecap and the patellar tendon that connects the kneecap to the tibia; the tendons enable leg extensions or straightening
- Cartilage – cushioning the knee joint is the meniscus, a structure made of cartilage
- Bursa – multiple fluid-filled sacs also help cushion the knee
Knee Pain Causes
What causes knee pain? Every structure in the knee can contribute to knee problems. The common causes of knee pain include:
- Disease like arthritis
- Inflammation triggered by non-knee medical conditions
- Trauma or injury
- Misalignment of the muscles or other muscle problems
- Misalignment of the bones
- Normal aging process in which tissues weaken
- Excessive and/or repetitive use of the joint
- Joint stress from activities like regularly lifting heavy items
- Bone or cartilage pieces breaking off and floating in the joint, causing irritation
- Changing the normal gait to accommodate a foot or hip problem which adds stress to the knee
Some people are at higher risk of developing knee problems that cause pain. They include people who:
- Do not exercise so muscles and ligaments weaken
- Are overweight or obese
- Are involved in sports or do activities like skiing or jogging
- Have job requirements requiring a lot of heavy lifting, squatting, or other repetitive movements
- Experienced a previous knee injury
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Symptoms of Knee Pain
The particular knee pain symptoms depend on the knee bone or tissue causing the problem. People with knee pain may have one or more of the following symptoms:
- Pain when putting any weight on the leg
- Knee becomes unstable and randomly gives out
- Swelling in the knee area
- Kneecap pain
- Experiencing redness or bruising around the knee
- Severe pain occurring shortly after an injury
- Inability to flex or straighten out the knee or perform other normal movements involving the knee joint
- Popping, crackling, or crunching noises when the knee is used
- Obvious knee deformity
Pain can occur suddenly, or it can develop over time. Sudden pain is usually due to an injury. Chronic knee pain that develops over time may occur randomly at first or when doing certain activities but gets increasingly worse as the knee bones and tissues deteriorate. Eventually, the pain becomes constant.
Knee Pain Diagnosis
Knee pain that does not cease after self-care, or is due to something like arthritis, will require care by a physician. The doctor will inspect the knee, ask the patient to do various movements, and feel the joint area. The doctor is likely to order one or more diagnostic tests. Options include:
- CT (Computerized Tomography) scan
- MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)
- Blood test
The physician could also decide to draw some fluid from the knee for evaluation. This procedure is called arthrocentesis.
Knee Pain Treatment
If someone believes the knee pain will subside or the pain is mild, he or she can try over-the-counter pain medications and resting the knee in an elevated position to allow it to heal and to minimize swelling. Applying ice or heat packs periodically can ease inflammation and mild pain. Wearing a compression bandage can prevent the buildup of fluid in the knee.
Sore knees are common among runners, joggers, gardeners, and sports participants. Home remedies may be all that is needed to relieve the pain.
If the pain does not go away, or pain regularly interferes with daily activities, it is time to see a doctor for knee pain. The options for treatment of knee pain include:
- Prescription anti-inflammatory, antibiotic or pain-relief medications
- Periodic injections of corticosteroids or medicinal lubricant like hyaluronic acid
- Physical therapy sessions to strengthen knee structures and restore flexibility
- Assigned exercises that improve joint balance, alignment, and flexibility
- Surgery – i.e. arthroscopic knee surgery; total or partial knee replacement
Take Care of the Knees
Taking care of the knees is important to maintaining an active lifestyle. If knee pain is interfering with the ability to enjoy life or perform job duties, see a physician. There is no reason to live with pain with so many treatments for knee pain options available.
Find out more about other pain conditions:
Call (703) 520-1031 today for a consultation with pain management specialist Dr. Majid Ghauri at Spine & Pain Clinic of North America (SAPNA) or use the form below to make an appointment.