Knee pain is a common complaint that affects people of all ages. Knee pain may be the result of an injury, such as a ruptured ligament or torn cartilage. Medical conditions — including arthritis, gout and infections — also can cause knee pain.
Many types of minor knee pain respond well to self-care measures. Physical therapy and knee braces also can help relieve pain. In some cases, however, your knee may require surgical repair.
The location and severity of knee pain may vary, depending on the cause of the problem. Signs and symptoms that sometimes accompany knee pain include:
Call your doctor if you:
Knee pain can be caused by injuries, mechanical problems, types of arthritis and other problems.
A knee injury can affect any of the ligaments, tendons or fluid-filled sacs (bursae) that surround your knee joint as well as the bones, cartilage and ligaments that form the joint itself. Some of the more common knee injuries include:
Some examples of mechanical problems that can cause knee pain include:
More than 100 different types of arthritis exist. The varieties most likely to affect the knee include:
Patellofemoral pain syndrome is a general term that refers to pain arising between the kneecap and the underlying thighbone. It's common in athletes; in young adults, especially those whose kneecap doesn't track properly in its groove; and in older adults, who usually develop the condition as a result of arthritis of the kneecap.
The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of the key ligaments that help stabilize your knee joint. The ACL connects your thighbone (femur) to your shinbone (tibia). It's most commonly torn during sports that involve sudden stops and changes in direction — such as basketball, soccer, tennis and volleyball.
The meniscus is a C-shaped piece of tough, rubbery cartilage that acts as a shock absorber between your shinbone and thighbone. It can be torn if you suddenly twist your knee while bearing weight on it.
A number of factors can increase your risk of having knee problems, including:
Not all knee pain is serious. But some knee injuries and medical conditions, such as osteoarthritis, can lead to increasing pain, joint damage and disability if left untreated. And having a knee injury — even a minor one — makes it more likely that you'll have similar injuries in the future.
Although it's not always possible to prevent knee pain, the following suggestions may help ward off injuries and joint deterioration:
Get strong, stay flexible. Weak muscles are a leading cause of knee injuries. You'll benefit from building up your quadriceps and hamstrings, the muscles on the front and back of your thighs that help support your knees. Balance and stability training helps the muscles around your knees work together more effectively.
And because tight muscles also can contribute to injury, stretching is important. Try to include flexibility exercises in your workouts.
During the physical exam, your doctor is likely to:
In some cases, your doctor might suggest tests such as:
If your doctor suspects an infection or inflammation, you're likely to have blood tests and sometimes a procedure called arthrocentesis, in which a small amount of fluid is removed from within your knee joint with a needle and sent to a laboratory for analysis.
Treatments will vary, depending upon what exactly is causing your knee pain.
Your doctor may prescribe medications to help relieve pain and to treat the conditions causing your knee pain, such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout.
Strengthening the muscles around your knee will make it more stable. Your doctor may recommend physical therapy or different types of strengthening exercises based on the specific condition that is causing your pain.
If you are physically active or practice a sport, you may need exercises to correct movement patterns that may be affecting your knees and to establish good technique during your sport or activity. Exercises to improve your flexibility and balance also are important.
Arch supports, sometimes with wedges on one side of the heel, can help shift pressure away from the side of the knee most affected by osteoarthritis. In certain conditions, different types of braces may be used to help protect and support the knee joint.
In some cases, your doctor may suggest injecting medications or other substances directly into your joint. Examples include:
If you have an injury that may require surgery, it's usually not necessary to have the operation immediately. Before making a decision, consider the pros and cons of both nonsurgical rehabilitation and surgical reconstruction in relation to what's most important to you. If you choose to have surgery, your options may include:
Over-the-counter medications — such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) — may help ease knee pain.
Some people find relief by rubbing the affected knee with creams containing a numbing agent, such as lidocaine, or capsaicin, the substance that makes chili peppers hot.
Self-care measures for an injured knee include:
Research suggests that acupuncture may help relieve knee pain caused by osteoarthritis. Acupuncture involves the placement of hair-thin needles into your skin at specific places on your body.
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor. Depending on the cause of your problem, he or she may refer you to a doctor specializing in joint diseases (rheumatologist), joint surgery (orthopedic surgeon) or sports medicine.
Before your appointment, you may want to write a list of answers to the following questions:
Your doctor may ask some of the following questions: