Knee Pain: Symptoms, Causes, and How to Manage It
Your knee joints play a significant role in almost all your daily activities like walking, exercising, jumping, or lifting. Knee joints are the largest joints in the human body and are its load-bearing hinges. They should hence, be well cared for. As you age, the structures in your body tend to undergo wear and tear, causing reduced strength and flexibility. This holds true for the knee joint as well; age increases the risks of knee injuries, leading to pain.
Let’s find out more about knee pain, its prevention and management, which will help you deal with the condition better.
What is the knee joint?
The knee joint is essentially bone ends, bound by tendons, muscles, and ligaments, which carry a considerable amount of load daily.
The knee is made up of the following parts:
Bones: Bones in the knee include:
- Tibia (bone in the lower leg)
- The femur (thigh bone)
- Patella or the kneecap
Cartilage: A layer of cartilage is present on the ends of the bones to provide protection. Cartilage is an elastic material that absorbs shock; it allows the bones to glide against each other smoothly. Cartilages in the knee joint include the lateral meniscus, the medial meniscus, and the articular cartilage.
Tendons and ligaments: Several tendons and ligaments like the patellar tendon, quadriceps tendon, medial collateral ligament (MCL), lateral collateral ligament (LCL), anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), and the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) are present in the knee joint.
Muscles: Four quadricep muscles present in the front of the thighs help in straightening the legs. Hamstring muscles present on the back of the thighs help in bending the knee.
A capsule wraps around the knee to protect the joint. The capsule is lined with a soft tissue known as synovium, which produces synovial fluid, essential in preventing friction during movements.
Symptoms that accompany knee pain
Depending on the cause, the severity of pain and associated symptoms may vary. These include:
- Stiffness and swelling of the joint
- Difficulty in completely straightening the knee
- Redness, warmth
- Popping or crunching noises
- Pain in hip joint due to referred pain from knee to hip and due to incorrect posture adopted by the patient to compensate for the knee pain. Very often, hip pain is the only symptom of knee joint pain and vice-versa.
Causes of knee pain
There are several causes of knee pain.
Injuries: Injuries affecting the knee joint are quite common. Some of these include:
Fracture: Falls, accidents, and conditions like osteoporosis can cause breaks in the knee joint bones.
Ligament tear: Any injury that causes a tear in one of the ligaments can cause pain. For example, ACL tears and injuries are seen frequently in sports like basketball and soccer.
Meniscus tear: The meniscus has the essential function of being a shock absorber. It may tear in situations where your knee gets twisted while bearing a load on it.
Sprains: Can result from sudden, twisting movements.
Mechanical causes: Some mechanical problems such as loose bodies or pieces of an injured or broken bone or cartilage getting lodged in the knee joint, dislocation of the knee cap, pain in the foot or hip, can affect your gait and may add pressure on the knee joint, causing pain.
Arthritis: Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout are some types of arthritis that affect the knee joint. Arthritis of the hip joint can manifest as knee pain.
Other conditions: Certain types of cancer and infections in the knee joint can cause pain. Patellofemoral pain syndrome or runner’s knee is when the cartilage under the knee cap gets damaged due to injuries, a common phenomenon observed in athletes.
Managing knee pain
1. If your knee pain is prolonged, severe, or due to accidents or injuries, seek medical attention. For mild knee pain and early discomfort, the following steps may be helpful.
2. If you hurt or sprain your knee, use the RICE method — Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.
3. Get adequate rest but avoid being immobile for long periods.
4. Avoid activities that may cause or worsen the pain; avoid putting any weight on your knee.
5. You apply ice on the affected area for 10 to 20 minutes, three or more times a day. If the swelling has subsided 24 to 48 hours after the injury, apply heat to the painful area. Avoid applying ice and heat directly onto the skin; use a towel to cover your knee.
6. Compression methods include wrapping the area with elastic bands, which can help reduce any swelling. Do not wrap too tight, and do not use compression for prolonged periods.
7. Keeping your knee elevated can help with any swelling. While sleeping, you can place a pillow beneath your knee. Try to keep the affected knee at or above the level of the heart.
When should you contact your doctor?
Although home-care measures may be enough in some cases of knee pain, others may require medical intervention. Contact your doctor if:
- Pain continues even after a few days of self-management
- Pain is severe, despite not bearing any load or weight
- One or both of your knees are unable to bear any weight
- You are unable to straighten your knee fully
- Your knee is deformed
- You run a fever
- The affected knee is swollen or warm to touch
- There are other symptoms like tingling, numbness, or discoloration of the calf along with knee pain
- Your knee locks or clicks painfully
Treatments for knee pain
Depending on your symptoms, medical history, fitness levels, and results of any diagnostic tests, your doctor may suggest one or a combination of treatments.
Medications: Your physician may prescribe some painkillers that may be stronger than the over-the-counter ones. Follow your doctor’s instructions for all medication.
Physical therapy: Depending on the cause and symptoms, a physiotherapist will tailor a treatment plan for you. It may include exercises; taping the kneecap, ie, applying an adhesive tape to adjust the way your kneecap moves and sits; using knee braces, and muscle strengthening exercises.
Counseling: When pain persists for long periods, it may affect your mood and cause you to be irritable, anxious, or low. Talking to a therapist can help with emotional stress.
Surgery: Surgery is recommended in cases when the pain is brought on by an underlying medical condition that may need surgery or in cases of severe injuries.
Can you avoid knee pain?
Your knee experiences pressure on a daily basis. It is essential to remain active and follow some healthy habits to keep it pain-free.
Exercises: Being physically active is vital to build and maintain strength.
Exercises focused on strengthening the muscles around the knee joint can make it more efficient in absorbing the load. You must work on your quadriceps, hamstrings, core, and hip muscles.
Exercises that can improve your flexibility and range of motion to manage and avoid stiffness.
Increase the intensity of exercise gradually. Always do warmups and stretches before your workouts.
It is advisable to train under a qualified coach, especially if you have a history of knee problems, to prevent injuries.
Healthy body weight: Maintaining a healthy body weight is important to avoid adding more pressure on your joints.
Suitable footwear: If your activities involve standing on hard surfaces for long periods, use comfortable cushioned shoes or gel inserts.
Remember, caring for your knee while it’s healthy can help you manage and prevent problems like osteoarthritis in the future. A little foresight and care can go a long way in keeping you mobile and pain-free.
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