Knee Pain: What Causes It, How to Treat It and When to See a Doctor
Knee pain is a common problem that many people experience. According to a report, frequent knee pain affects approximately 25% of adults. Knee pain limits the ability to move and function and ultimately impairs the quality of life.
What are the common causes of knee pain?
Knee pain can be caused by repetitive injury, traumatic injury, or as part of the normal aging process.
One common cause of knee pain is osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, and it occurs when the cartilage in the joints breaks down. This happens gradually over time and is primarily considered part of the normal aging process.
Another common cause of knee pain is a patellofemoral syndrome. This condition occurs when there is too much pressure on the patella, the small bone at the front of the knee joint (also called the kneecap). This can happen due to repetitive motions, such as running or jumping. A kneecap misalignment due to weakness in the stabilizing gluteal muscles can also cause it.
IT Band Syndrome
IT band syndrome is a condition that occurs when the iliotibial band, a ligament that runs along the outside of the thigh, becomes tight or inflamed. This can happen due to repetitive motions, such as running or cycling, along with weakness in the stabilizing gluteal muscles. The iliotibial band helps to stabilize the knee, so when it becomes tight or inflamed, it can cause knee pain.
A meniscus tear is a common knee injury. The meniscus is a C-shaped piece of cartilage that sits between the femur and tibia and acts as a shock absorber for the knee joint. A tear can occur due to trauma, such as a direct knee blow or repetitive motions. In addition, meniscus tears can be either acute or chronic. Acute tears are usually the result of a traumatic injury, while chronic tears occur over time from repetitive motions.
Bursitis occurs when the fluid-filled sacs that cushion the joints become inflamed. Bursitis in the knee can be caused by overuse, injury or infection.
How is knee pain treated?
There are several different treatment options available for knee pain. The type of treatment that is right for you will depend on the cause of your knee pain.
Treatments for functional and acute knee pain, such as IT band syndrome or bursitis, start with knee pain relief. Once pain is under control, improving the function of the knee using knee strengthening exercises and stretches is very effective. Chronic pain such as osteoarthritis is managed through a physician and may include regular anti-inflammatory medication. Managing knee pain due to osteoarthritis is most successful with knee exercises. In severe cases of osteoarthritis, knee joint replacement is the best option.
Knee pain relief
Traditional knee pain relief for acute pain includes home care such as rest, ice, compression, elevation, and over-the-counter pain medication. However, if the pain is significant, treatment with prescription medication or a cortisone shot may be warranted. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary.
Knee strengthening exercises
For most knee pain, knee strengthening exercises are the most effective. Weak knees most often stem from instability in the hip, and strengthening the hip muscles, specifically the glute muscles, will restore normal balance and function. Exercises for knee pain also include targeting muscles in the thigh (quadriceps and hamstrings), lower leg (gastrocnemius, soleus, posterior and anterior tibialis) and lower torso (iliacus and psoas major).
Stretching the muscles and ligaments around the knee is essential for maintaining flexibility and preventing pain. Some of the best stretches for knee pain relief include:
- hamstring stretch
- quadriceps stretch
- calf stretch
- iliotibial band stretch
- patellar tendon stretch
- gastrocnemius muscle stretch
When strengthening exercises and stretches are combined with ice and over-the-counter medication, most people find knee pain disappears altogether. Take care when beginning an exercise routine and don’t ignore or push through pain. Instead, build up the exercises slowly and steadily.
When to see the doctor about knee pain
Knee pain that is severe or does not improve with home care requires medical attention. Additionally, if you notice any of the following symptoms, make note of their frequency and severity so you can discuss with your health care provider.
- redness or warmth around the joint
- swelling around the joint
- inability to put weight on the affected leg
- knee pain that wakes you up at night
- joint instability
- locking or catching sensation in the knee
- popping or grinding noise when the knee is moved
These could be signs of a more serious condition and should be discussed with your primary care provider.
How to prevent knee pain
While strenuous or repetitive exercise can lead to knee pain, a combination of moderate cardiovascular exercise and strength training can help prevent not only knee pain but other joint injuries as well. Incorporating strength training that targets the muscles around the knee will help protect joints from repetitive injury, improve balance, increase endurance, and help improve your metabolism.
About the Author:
Camilla Moore, DC, ART, SFMA
Dr. Moore is the creator of PreTrain, a fitness approach that combines evidence-based rehabilitation exercises, progressive movement training, and a high intensity, short-duration fitness routine to help patients improve their strength, stability and flexibility.
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