Every year in the United States, knee pain sends some 12 million patients to the doctor. Whether the pain stems from a sports injury or simple wear and tear, injured and achy knees rank among the most common reasons people seek medical care.
Knee pain has many different causes, such as sudden injuries, long-term overuse or underlying degenerative conditions. Depending on the type of pain and how quickly it develops, treatment options can span the full gamut, from rest to reconstructive surgery.
Following are the four most common types of knee pain, and the treatments generally recommended for each, according to Heinz Hoenecke, MD, an orthopedic surgeon with Scripps Clinic. Because each individual patient is different, the effectiveness of treatments will vary from case to case.
Dull knee pain that develops over time
Such pain often stems from long-term deterioration of the knee’s cartilage (chondromalacia), or from arthritis. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications can ease pain, and arthritis supplements, such as glucosamine may also help. In milder cases, exercises that maintain alignment of the knee may alleviate pain. These exercises may be learned from physical therapists; also, alternative therapies such as Egoscue, Pilates and yoga techniques may help with alignment and core strengthening to relieve pain. If symptoms worsen or don’t improve within a few months, consult a physician or orthopedic specialist.
Knee pain from increased activity
With increased physical activity, such as long-distance running or hiking, some people experience pain in the front of their knees. Often, this involves natural deterioration or cracking on the undersurface of the kneecap. For swollen knees, anti-inflammatory medications may help. Exercises should focus on strengthening the core and hip. Stronger hip muscles can decrease stress on the knee joint and improve alignment. Reduce or avoid activities that led to the pain until symptoms resolve. If running, walking or hiking seem to aggravate the condition, consider a different type of shoe or try orthotics or shoe inserts that can correct alignment and provide extra cushioning. If symptoms don’t improve within a few months, consult a physician.
Sudden knee pain from small movements
A twinge in the knee upon rising from a chair. A sharp pain while descending stairs. A knee that “locks” while extended. All may be caused by a tear in the cartilage of the knee joint known as the meniscus. Rest, ice and pain relievers may help with pain and give the meniscus time to heal. However, if symptoms do not improve after six weeks, the next step may be an MRI to diagnose the extent of the damage. A severe meniscus tear usually requires arthroscopic surgery to remove or repair the torn cartilage and minimize the chance of further injury.
Injury-related knee pain
Traumatic injury to the knee, such as ligament or cartilage damage, often causes sudden, sharp pain and instability of the joint. These injuries should be evaluated by a physician immediately. Surgery may not be needed, but the physician can recommend steps to take right away to limit the damage and help the joint recover. If symptoms continue after four to six weeks, reconstructive surgery may be needed.