Knee Pain

Overview

What is knee pain?

Knee pain can occur for many reasons, most commonly because of overuse, injuries or arthritis. You can experience knee pain at any age, but older people are more likely to develop it due to degeneration of the joint, a condition known as osteoarthritis.

Depending on what’s causing your pain, you may feel better with rest, anti-inflammatory medication and ice. If you have a more severe injury, you may need a procedure or a surgery.

Surgeons often use minimally invasive types of surgery (arthroscopic surgery) to repair damage to the knee like torn tendons or ligaments. These types of injuries can cause knee instability and pain. In cases when the damage is severe, your healthcare provider may recommend knee replacement surgery.

Knee anatomy

The knee is made of

  • Skin.
  • Muscles.
  • Bones.
  • Cartilage - protective lining and shock absorber for the bones.
  • Meniscus - a type of cartilage to cushion deep in the joint.
  • Tendons- fibers that connect muscles to bones.
  • Ligaments- tissues that attach bones to other bones.
  • Bursa- thin protective pads under the skin.

Possible Causes

What are the possible causes of knee pain?

Many conditions and injuries can make your knees hurt. Some common knee pain causes can include overuse, injuries and arthritis.

Overuse

Repetitive activities can lead to pain Some examples are:

  • Patellofemoral pain (runner’s knee): pain under or around the kneecap, often related to mechanics, shape of the knee cap, or
  • Osgood-Schlatter disease: In children, swelling in the shinbone below the kneecap due to overuse.
  • Tendonitis, involving the quadriceps or patella tendon: repetitive jumping sports such as volleyball or basketball.

Injury

Sudden trauma can damage parts of your knee joint. Common knee injuries can include:

  • Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury or medial collateral ligament (MCL) injury: Damage to the main stabilizing ligaments of the knee.
  • Bursitis: Inflammation (swelling) of the fluid-filled sacs that cushion the knee joint.
  • Kneecap dislocation: Movement out of place by your kneecap (the bone that covers your knee).
  • Meniscus tear: Tear in the knee’s cartilage (slippery tissue that helps bones move together smoothly).

Arthritis

Arthritis is a condition that can impact many different joints in your body. When you have arthritis in your knee, it causes the joint to swell. This can be a painful condition. Arthritis in your knee is more likely to develop over time as you age. There are several different types of arthritis that can affect the knees, including:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: This type of arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means that it attacks the joints of the body, causing inflammation (swelling) and breaking them down.
  • Osteoarthritis: This type of arthritis is characterized by a breakdown of cartilage in your joint over a period of time. Body weight can play a big role in your joint health. Being overweight can place extra stress on the knee. This can cause pain. Maintaining a healthy body weight by regularly exercising and eating a nutritious diet can reduce your risk of joint pain.

Care and Treatment

How can I manage knee pain?

Treatment for knee pain depends on what’s causing it and how uncomfortable it makes you.

  • Mild knee injuries often improve with rest, ice and anti-inflammatory medications. Wearing a brace can stabilize your knee while it recovers.
  • If arthritis is causing knee pain, your treatment may include medication and physical therapy.
  • Doctors can usually repair tendon and ligament tears with minimally invasive surgery, if necessary.
  • More serious knee pain may require knee replacement surgery.

No matter what caused your knee pain, physical therapy exercises can strengthen the muscles supporting your knee to help relieve discomfort.

How can I ease knee pain at home?

Your doctor or physical therapist can recommend home care to relieve knee pain. These may include:

  • Applying heat or ice packs.
  • Modifying activities to avoid causing pain.
  • Practicing gentle stretches or exercises.
  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
  • Topical treatments such as muscle creams or rubs.
  • Wearing a brace to support the knee.

When to Call the Doctor

When should I call the doctor about knee pain?

See your doctor right away if you have severe knee pain after a fall or accident, or if your knee is too painful or unstable to support your weight. You should also see your doctor if your knee is swollen or you can’t extend it all the way. Call your doctor if you have pain that keeps bothering you longer than a few days.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/03/2020.

References

  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Arthritis of the Knee. (https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/arthritis-of-the-knee) Accessed 11/5/2020.
  • Arthritis Foundation. When Knee Pain May Mean Arthritis. (https://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/where-it-hurts/knee-pain/) Accessed 11/5/2020.
  • Merck Manual. Pain in the Front of the Knee. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/injuries-and-poisoning/sports-injuries/pain-in-the-front-of-the-knee.) Accessed 11/5/2020.
  • National Health Service. Knee pain. (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/knee-pain/) Accessed 11/5/2020.

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