Serving as the intersecting point of three bones of the leg (femur, tibia, fibula), the knee is located in a part of the body that offers little protection against a hard blow or sudden twist. The largest joint in the body can also be affected by inflammation-based conditions such as osteoarthritis, the type of arthritis most likely to affect knees. Understanding potential sources of knee pain can help you know when it’s time to seek input from your doctor and what steps you may be able to take to prevent it.
Knee Pain Symptoms and Sources
Symptoms related to knee pain often involve some degree of discomfort. The resulting pain is often aggravated by movement, although pain from a sharp, hard impact may be excruciating and require immediate attention. In addition to noticeable difficulty moving or straightening your knee, you may notice visible swelling or redness if your knee pain is related to an injury or a condition that’s causing tissues to become inflamed. You may experience a “popping” noise while walking if you have a dislocation.
Bones, muscles, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments in and around each knee work together to carry out many of your daily movements. Any of these parts may become a source of pain from a direct impact or a movement that takes the knee beyond its normal range-of-motion. The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), one of the four main ligaments of the knee, is often affected due to its prominent location in the middle of the knee. Additional sources of knee-related pain may include:
- Inflammation from arthritis or lupus
- Progressive degeneration (wear and tear) of tissues
- Overuse, often from repetitious motions
- Instability from fractures in the tibia or femur
- Dislocation of the patella (kneecap)
- A torn meniscus (crescent-shaped disc cushioning the knee)
Diagnosis and Treatment of Knee Pain
X-rays can provide a better look at the bones of the knee while CT scans or MRIs provide a more detailed view of soft tissues within the knee area. Performed with a small incision and the use of a tiny camera, an arthroscopy may be done when the knee joint needs to be closely examined. If knee pain is caused by a growth, a biopsy may be performed. Knee pain is often treated with medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), hyaluronic acid or corticosteroid injections into the affected part of the knee, and COX-2 inhibitors like Celebrex. Knee pain may also be treated with:
- Physical therapy
- TENS electrodes placement
- Low-impact activities/exercises (e.g., swimming, casual walking)
- Temporary bracing to produce immobility
- Ligament reconstruction
- Partial or complete knee replacement
Knee pain is often a temporary inconvenience that will go away after some rest or the application of ice or heat intermittently for a few days. If knee pain lingers, see what your doctor has to say. You may be referred to an orthopedic surgeon for further evaluation, depending on the extent of your symptoms. Keep in mind that most knee specialists consider surgery a last resort. The primary goal is to determine the source of your knee pain so appropriate treatment recommendations can be made.