All of us encounter knee pain at some point or another, but it isn’t always obvious what the best course of action should be. A simple scraped or bruised knee injury may only need a bandaid and ointment while the most serious trauma requires surgery and months of recovery. Many of us are somewhere in between, and knowing when to take action for knee pain often requires guidance.
It is usually best to err on the side of caution with any knee injury and seek professional help. It is also beneficial to educate yourself as a patient so you can take a more proactive role as you work for relief and a return to your normal activities. That’s why the Outpatient Joint Replacement Center of America (OJRCA) has put together the following comprehensive overview of what to do for knee pain.
If you have any questions about this guide below or would like to know how we can help you find relief, don’t hesitate to reach out. Our compassionate team is here for you.
Knee Joint Basics
Unlike more complex organs or parts of the musculoskeletal system, we have a pretty good understanding our knee joints. They connect the upper and lower legs and enable all manner of movement, from sitting, standing, walking, running and jumping. The bones that form the knee joint are the femur, or upper leg, and the tibia in the lower leg, with the patella, or kneecap, protecting the front of the joint.
As a hinge joint, our knees are primarily built for extension, when you straighten the leg from a bent position, and flexion, when you bend it back toward a 90 degree angle or further back to the buttocks. The knee is also built for rotation as well as translation, on multiple different planes, which enables direction changes and pivoting.
To enable this movement, the knee is connected by ligaments and joined by tendons to the leg muscles around it. There are also two c-shaped pieces of cartilage called mesici in each knee that function as bushings, allowing the curved end of the femur, or thigh bone to connect to the flatter tibial bone surface.
Understanding the Sources of Knee Pain
Knee pain occurs largely from two primary sources, knee injury and knee degeneration:
- Knee injury — There are a number of knee injuries that can occur, including trauma and repetitive motion injuries. Sudden force to the knee, such as from a vehicle collision or contact sports, can lead to fractures, torn ligaments and torn tendons. Acute trauma may also occur in sports that involve intense twisting or pivoting of the knee, such as football, basketball or tennis. Repetitive motions to the knee can lead to strained muscles and sprained ligaments or tendons. Physical labor and endurance sports such as running or cycling are common sources of repetitive motion injury.
- Knee degeneration — With age, our bones and cartilage become more brittle and our soft tissue begins to dry out and lose elasticity. This makes the knees less able to withstand the stress we place on it every day. It also causes protective cartilage to wear down and joint fluid to dry up, leading to bone-on-bone contact and knee joint inflammation. In its most common form, this is diagnosed as osteoarthritis of the knee. However, recurring knee injury can result in accelerated knee degeneration and post-traumatic arthritis.
- These are far from the only two sources of knee pain. Other types include auto-immune diseases, chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia. Biomechanical issues, such as overpronation in the feet, are just another example of potential contributors to knee pain. This is why it is so important to seek a professional diagnosis and treatment for any knee pain that lasts for longer than a very short period of time.
What to Do for Knee Pain Diagnosis
Working closely with your doctor to diagnose the source of your knee pain is critical to finding relief on a long-term basis. A great way to help is to come prepared for any appointments, particularly by recording your specific symptoms and their location, as well as the activities and times of day that seem to trigger them. This can be a great resource to help health professionals pinpoint the source of pain in your knee joint.
Along with a detailed discussion of your symptoms and activities, you can expect the following steps during your diagnostic process:
- Review of your medical, injury and treatment history
- A hands-on examination of your knee joint that includes movement tests
- Ordering of diagnostic tests and imagery, such as X-ray or MRI, to confirm or rule out a potential diagnosis
It’s also critical to have a clear understanding with your physician and any other members of your care team regarding your goals for treatment. Younger patients looking to get back to vigorous athletic activity may require different treatment than an older patient trying to regain moderate function due to arthritis pain.
How to Treat Knee Pain with Conservative Therapy
A large number of knee injuries and degenerative knee pain cases benefit from basic conservative care. This typically includes rest, using an ice pack to relieve swelling, a heating pad to relax tense muscles and improve blood flow and over-the-counter medication as needed. Arthritis patients often use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as naproxen or ibuprofen to relieve knee joint pain.
Physical therapy can help improve knee stability and range of motion. Depending on the patient, a physical therapist can use a combination of active and passive therapeutic exercises and manual therapies to strengthen surrounding muscles and mobilize the knee joint and surrounding tissue.
Therapeutic injections can also play a key role. Pain-relieving injections consisting of a numbing agent and corticosteroid can help relieve pain and inflammation for periods of time. This can help patients complete physical therapy and regain mobility that may not have been otherwise possible. There are also promising regenerative injections, including amniotic injections, platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections, and viscosupplementation, that can help the body’s own systems promote the natural healing process. Speak with your doctor or other qualified medical professional about which injections may help with your specific knee pain diagnosis.
How to Promote Knee Joint Health With a Healthy Lifestyle
It’s important not to overlook healthy lifestyle choices when exploring what to do about knee pain. The following factors can have a major impact on your ability to overcome knee pain and maintain a good quality of life:
- Healthy weight management takes pressure off the knee joint
- Eating a nutritious diet can reduce inflammation and help deliver key nutrients to the joint
- Regular low impact exercise promotes strong supporting muscles and cardiovascular health for better blood flow
- Addressing biomechanics through movement training and orthotics, if needed, can help reduce stress on the knee
Committing to a healthy lifestyle can be an important part of the overall puzzle for knee pain relief.
When to Consider Knee Surgery
For certain knee injuries such as ligament tears, meniscus tears or fractures, knee surgery may be needed as the first line of treatment depending on the location and extent of injury. However, in many other cases of knee pain, surgery is a last resort treatment option that patients consider after thoroughly exhausting conservative therapy, activity modification and lifestyle changes.
In these situations, knee replacement surgery is usually indicated in cases where there is knee joint damage in all or part of the joint. The goal of this type of procedure is to remove the damaged surfaces of the joint and replace them with prosthetics designed to stabilize the knee and replicate knee movement.
At OJRCA, we can perform partial knee replacement if damage is limited to a particular compartment of the knee. A total knee replacement may be recommended in cases of widespread joint damage due to arthritis or injury. We will perform a thorough evaluation to determine which approach is best for your individual needs.
What to Know About Outpatient Knee Replacement Surgery
Thanks to minimally invasive techniques that take a tissue-sparing approach and require a smaller incision, it is possible to perform knee replacement surgery on an outpatient basis. At OJRCA we combine minimally invasive techniques with a unique and advanced pain protocol that gets patients up and moving quicker and helps promote a quicker recovery and rehabilitation period.
Even in cases where a hospital-based procedure is necessary due to a pre-existing medical condition or other factors, these knee replacement surgery techniques can help patients experience a shorter recovery and less postoperative difficulty.
Experience the OJRCA Difference
The OJRCA team, including board-certified surgeon and Medical Director, Dr. Philip Clifford, are committed to patient-centered care. No matter where you care on your knee pain treatment journey, we’ll help you get back to the people and activities you’ve been missing with a personalized treatment plan.
To learn more and find out how we can help, reach out today.