Knee pain is a common complaint that can affect people of any age, though it is more likely as we get older. Often knee pain can be managed with simple lifestyle changes, though for serious and chronic cases more treatment may be necessary.
The most common causes of knee pain are injury or overuse, and arthritis.
What is knee pain?
Our knees are some of our most used joints and they absorb a lot of the stress and strains put on our body during everyday life.
You might experience pain in your knee joint for a wide variety of reasons. These will generally fall within the categories of injury, overuse or arthritis.
Not everyone will experience knee pain in the same way. You might have a sharp pain only when doing certain things, or your pain might be duller but more constant. Perhaps you feel pain at the back of the knee, while others might feel most pain at the front.
As well as pain in your knee, you might also experience swelling and/or reduced range of movement.
Different types of knee pain sometimes indicate different causes, but this won’t always be the case.
What causes knee pain?
Often knee pain will be short-term and caused by overuse or by a small injury caused by twisting or knocking your knee.
Try resting your knee for a few days. If the pain doesn’t ease or go away, speak to your GP who will help you get a diagnosis.
The most common causes of knee pain include:
Many people don’t realise that the term ‘arthritis’ can be used to describe most conditions where there’s pain and inflammation in a joint. Arthritis is a condition that can affect any joint, and the knee joint is one of the most commonly afflicted.
Osteoarthritis is the most common form. It is caused by wear and tear on your joints over time.
Bursitis happens when you damage the bursa in your knee. A bursa is a fluid-filled sac near your joint that reduces friction between bones and tendons.
This injury is caused by overuse of the knee. It normally causes pain in the front of the knee and is sometimes called jumper’s knee.
This is the most common knee ligament injury and is frequently suffered by athletes. It can make your knee unstable and usually needs treatment.
The meniscus is cartilage that cushions your thighbone and shinbone. A tear is often caused by twisting or turning the knee during sports.
Also known as patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS), this can happen because your knee takes the impact when you run.
This fluid-filled sac develops at the back of the knee. It most often develops following sports injuries, a bang or knock to the back of the knee, or as a side-effect of osteoarthritis.
Knee injuries are very common and can include fractures, dislocation, or damage to the cartilage, tendons or meniscus.
These are by no means the only causes of joint pain in the knee. Other medical conditions or injuries such as gout, rheumatoid arthritis, sprains and strains can all cause knee problems. That’s why it’s important to see a specialist sooner rather than later to get diagnosis.
Once you know what’s causing your knee pain, your doctor will work with you on a treatment plan that’s best for your individual circumstances.
What other conditions and injuries can lead to knee pain?
Knee pain can occur for many reasons. An injury might damage the cartilage, the meniscus, the ligaments or the tendons of the knee.
There are also many common conditions that can cause pain in the knee. For example, the knee can wear out over time and this can lead to osteoarthritis.
The most common symptom of knee damage is knee pain itself. The pain can be very varied. Often the level and type of pain can give your consultant an idea of the type of problem that’s occurring.
Swelling is another symptom. If the knee starts swelling up, it’s a sign that there’s something in the joint that’s irritating it; it’s your body’s way of telling you there’s something wrong with your knee.
The three most common problems that I tend to see are:
- Tears to the meniscus
- Damaged or torn ligaments, in particular the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)
- Osteoarthritis of the knee
When should I seek help for knee pain?
If you develop pain in your knee, try resting it for a few days. You can also use an ice pack and/or use mild over-the-counter painkillers. Your local pharmacist will be able to give you advice on all of this.
If your pain and swelling persist after this, it’s best to speak to your GP, a physiotherapist, or a specialist consultant. They’ll help you identify what’s wrong.
Most knee pain is not caused by anything serious, however it is still best to get it checked out sooner rather than later in case you need a particular treatment or a prolonged period of rest.
What treatments are available for knee pain?
The type of treatment you are recommended for your knee pain will depend on the cause as well as the severity of your symptoms.
For example, if you have an injury, you may be given a recovery plan that will help you get back to normal as soon as possible. If your pain is due to mild wear and tear, the first step may be to build strength in the muscles around the joint with exercise.
If you have very advanced osteoarthritis, you may be recommended more invasive treatments such as surgery.
Lifestyle changes for knee pain relief
Certain lifestyle factors can increase the risk of knee pain. Making small lifestyle changes to improve your health will likely be the first advice you are given to try and reduce or even cure your joint pain.
For example, losing weight can ease the pressure on your knees, while exercising more can help strengthen the muscles around your joints.
Making small changes like this can significantly reduce your pain in the long term, and even stop you from needing more invasive treatments in future.
Non-surgical knee pain treatment
Sometimes you will need a little more than lifestyle changes to get your knee pain under control. There are various non-surgical treatments you may be prescribed.
Your consultant might first recommend physical therapy. A physiotherapist will show you movements and exercises that can reduce pain and improve flexibility without further damaging your knee.
There are also medications that might be recommended. These include painkillers (both over the counter and prescription), anti-inflammatories and joint injections.
Surgery for knee pain
Surgery will only be recommended if you and your consultant both think it’s the best choice for you.
There are many different types of knee surgery available. The one you are recommended will depend on what condition is affecting your knee, as well as your personal circumstances.
If you have very advanced arthritis and your pain or lack of mobility is stopping you from doing the things you love, you might be recommended knee replacement surgery. This involves removing part or all of your damaged knee joint and replacing it with a prosthesis.
Knee replacement surgery can have huge benefits to a person’s quality of life, but it won’t be recommended unless you’ve tried less invasive methods and they haven’t worked.
Who can benefit from knee surgery and what to expect if you need it?
Mr Bobby Anand explains who could benefit from knee surgery and what happens during knee surgery.
Surgery is not the only treatment option for patients who have problems of the knee.
The first step is to obtain an accurate diagnosis of the condition. This involves seeing a specialist, having a history taken, a thorough examination and then appropriate imaging.
A small percentage of patients will benefit from surgery for knee pain, but this is a decision that should only be taken once other avenues have been exhausted and after the surgeon and patient have had an extensive discussion of all options.
Complications from knee surgery are quite rare. We occasionally see problems, but the vast majority of patients will not.
The recovery time from surgery depends on the type of knee surgery performed and also on the patient.
For example, keyhole surgery where we trim away the damaged part of the meniscus is a very common operation and I’d typically expect to see patients up and about within a day or two.
Other procedures, such as knee replacement surgery, take a lot longer to recover from. Some patients can recover from knee replacement surgery very well within six weeks, but typically recovery from this type of surgery would take three to six months.