How to Treat Knee Pain
Knee pain is staggeringly common, being the second most common cause of chronic pain in the 100 million Americans who suffer from chronic pain each year. Knee pain can be caused by disease or injury. People wondering how to treat knee pain often get caught up in the flurry of technical and medical words surrounding their condition. The most common disease affecting the knee is osteoarthritis. Knee injuries can occur as the result of a direct blow or sudden movement that strains the knee beyond its normal range of movement. Knee pain caused by an injury is most often associated with knee cartilage tears, such as meniscal tears, or ligament tears, such as anterior cruciate ligament tears.
What is Knee Pain?
Knee pain can be caused by disease or injury. Knee pain can restrict movement, affect muscle control in the sore leg, and reduce the strength and endurance of the muscles that support the knee. The most common disease affecting the knee is osteoarthritis, which is caused by the cartilage in the knee gradually wearing away, resulting in pain and swelling. That’s a fancy way of saying it hurts to move your knee.
Knee injuries can occur as the result of a direct blow or sudden movement that strains the knee beyond its normal range of motion, as can happen in sports, recreational activities, a fall, or a motor vehicle accident. Knee pain caused by an injury often is associated with tears in the knee cartilage or ligaments. Knee pain also can be the result of repeated stress, as often occurs with the kneecap, also known as patellofemoral pain syndrome. Very rarely, with extreme trauma, a bone may break at the knee. But don’t stress – this is uncommon and if you’re already wondering how to treat knee pain, you’re probably already heading towards a positive resolution!
How Does Knee Pain Feel?
You may feel knee pain in different parts of your knee joint, depending on the problem affecting you. Identifying the location or potential cause of your pain can help your physical therapist determine its cause.
How is Knee Pain Diagnosed?
Your physical therapist will make a diagnosis based on your symptoms, medical history, and a thorough examination. X-ray and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) results may also be used to complete the diagnosis.
The physical therapist will perform tests to find out whether you have:
• Pain or discomfort with bending or straightening your knee
• Tenderness at the knee joint
• Limited motion in your knee
• Weakness in the muscles around your knee
• Difficulty putting weight on your knee when standing or walking
The physical therapist also is concerned about how well you are able to use your injured knee in daily life. To assess this, the therapist may use such tests as a single-limb hop test, a 6-minute walk test, or a timed up and go test.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
Based on the evaluation, your physical therapist will develop a customized rehabilitation program on how to treat knee pain, including a specific set of knee exercises, for you.
If you already have knee problems, your physical therapist can help with a plan of exercise that will strengthen your knee without increasing the risk of injury or further damage. As a general rule, you should choose gentle exercises such as swimming, aquatic exercise, or walking rather than jarring exercises such as jogging or high-impact aerobics.
Consult your physical therapist about specific ways to maintain your knee health following injury or surgery. Your physical therapist has the relevant educational background and expertise to evaluate your knee health and to refer you to another health care provider if necessary.
Depending on the severity of your knee problem, your age, and your lifestyle, the therapist may select such treatments as:
Strength training and functional exercises, which are designed to increase strength, endurance, and function of your leg muscles (quadriceps and hamstrings). This in turn helps support the knee and reduce stress to the knee joint.
Electrical stimulation of the knee, which further increases leg muscle strength and can help reduce knee pain. To increase strength, electrical impulses are generated by a device and delivered through electrodes to stimulate the primary muscle that supports the knee, the quadriceps femoris. This may sound scary at first glance, but it’s really very quick and painless! To reduce your knee pain, the electrodes are placed on the skin to gently stimulate the nerves around the knee.
Your physical therapist can determine just how much you may need to limit physical activity involving the affected knee. He or she also can gauge your knee’s progress in function during your rehabilitation.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help Before & After Surgery?
Your physical therapist, in consultation with your surgeon, will be able to tell you how much activity you can do depending on the type of knee surgery (such as total knee replacement) you undergo. Your therapist and surgeon also might have you participate in physical therapy prior to surgery to increase your strength and motion. This can sometimes help with recovery after surgery.
Following surgery, your physical therapist will design a personalized rehabilitation program for you and help you gain the strength, movement, and endurance you need to return to performing the daily activities you did before.
Can Knee Pain be Prevented?
Yes! In most cases, knee pain can be prevented. Ideally, everyone should regularly get 3 types of exercise to prevent injury to all parts of the body, including the knees:
- Range-of-motion exercises to help maintain normal joint movement and relieve stiffness.
- Strengthening exercises to keep or increase muscle strength.
- Aerobic or endurance exercises (such as walking or swimming) to improve function of the heart and circulation and to help control weight. Weight control can be important to people who have arthritis because extra weight puts pressure on many joints, including the knee.
- Keep up-to-date on how to treat knee pain – new research is always being released, and with every study we learn more about prevention and treatment.
To keep knee pain and other musculoskeletal pain at bay, it’s important to maintain an overall healthy lifestyle, exercise, get adequate rest, and eat healthy foods. It’s also important for runners and other athletes to perform physical therapist-approved stretching and warm-up exercises on a daily basis—especially before beginning physical activity.