Knee Pain

What causes knee pain?

The knee functions as a hinge and a shock absorber during walking, running, jumping, kicking, and climbing. Ligaments, tendons, and muscles give the knee stability and hold it together. Because the joint is weak, the knee is at risk for many types of injuries and these injuries can cause pain. The most common causes of knee pain are sprains, overuse injuries, cartilage tears, and arthritis.

  • A knee sprain is an injury that causes a stretch or tear in a ligament. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that connect one bone to another to form the joints. A knee sprain is caused by a sudden activity that twists or tears a ligament. It can happen, for example, when you play sports, when you fall, or if you are in an accident that twists your leg.
  • Overuse injuries happen from overtraining or overworking your knee. They can cause pain and swelling of the tissues of your knee.
  • Cartilage is tissue that lines and cushions the surfaces of joints. Knee cartilage can tear if the knee is forcefully twisted, like from a sudden stop and turn. Sometimes it happens from less forceful movement, like kneeling or squatting. The cartilage can also break down from arthritis.

How are knee injuries treated?

Treatment depends on how bad the injury is.

  • You may need to change or stop doing the activities that cause pain until your knee has healed.
  • Your provider may wrap an elastic bandage around your knee to keep swelling from getting worse.
  • You may need to keep your knee in a knee immobilizer or brace and use crutches to protect your knee while you heal.
  • Your healthcare provider may recommend stretching and strengthening exercises to help you heal.
  • If you have torn cartilage or a torn ligament, sometimes surgery is needed.

How can I take care of myself?

To keep swelling down and help relieve pain for the first few days after the injury:

  • Put an ice pack, gel pack, or package of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth on your knee every 3 to 4 hours for up to 20 minutes at a time.
  • Keep your knee up on a pillow when you sit or lie down.
  • Take nonprescription pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Read the label and take as directed. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take an NSAID for more than 10 days.

Follow your healthcare provider's instructions. Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent knee injuries?

Here are some things you can do to help prevent knee injuries:

  • Do warm-up exercises and stretching before activities. For example, stretch your leg muscles and do exercises that build strong thigh, gluteal, and calf muscles.
  • Use a foam roller to break up scar tissue in the muscles.
  • Gradually increase how hard you exercise for several weeks. For example, do not double the amount of exercise you do from one week to the next.
  • Wear shoes with proper arch supports and cushioning.
  • Avoid exercising on hard surfaces.
  • When cycling, make sure the seat height is correct for the length of your legs.
  • Switch the kinds of exercises you do. For example, swim or bike instead of run every day.
  • Follow safety rules and use any protective equipment recommended for your work or sport.

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Published by RelayHealth.
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