Healthy knees are a critical part of a healthy lifestyle. Painful inflammation in the knee joint can slow you down when it comes to the hobbies you love, like gardening, golf, pickleball or anything else that requires movement in your legs (which is just about everything). Fortunately, knee pain doesn’t have to slow you down forever. When you’re proactive and seek physical therapy for ongoing knee pain, you can likely avoid surgery and get back to the active lifestyle you enjoy, without the chronic nagging in your kneecaps.
In this page, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about knee pain — possible causes, possible treatments (and what those treatments look like), and when you should see a physical therapist. Think of this as your be-all-end-all guide for combatting knee pain and getting back on to that pickleball court (or power walking the mall or squatting 500 pounds or whatever it is that you do in your free time).
What Causes Knee Pain?
Before we can look into treatment options, the first thing we have to do is identify what can even cause knee pain. The root cause of your symptoms will dictate the type of treatment recommended. Some of the most common causes of knee pain include:
- Degeneration — Basically, degeneration means that the joint has simply worn down over time due to things like age and repetitive movements. This type of cause doesn’t often feel very satisfying because it doesn’t pinpoint to one thing, but fortunately knee pain caused by degeneration does very well with physical therapy treatment.
- Arthritis — Similar to natural degeneration, arthritis in the knee develops when the normal wear and tear on the knee actually breaks down the cartilage within the joint. The cartilage is meant to cushion the movement of the joint, so when this breaks down, inflammation can develop, making movement in the knee painful.
- Injury — In some cases, injury like a torn ligament (e.g., ACL tear), fracture, dislocated kneecap or torn tendon could result in chronic pain. Typically, you will be aware that an injury has happened, and the pain will come on suddenly, as opposed to gradually becoming evident over a course of several weeks or months.
Some additional risks that could make you more susceptible to chronic knee pain include excessive weight gain, limited stretching before sports, or movement and occupations that require consistent manual labor.
Treatments for Knee Pain
OK, so now that we know what the possible causes of knee pain are, let’s talk through the treatment options available. There are many routes to go for treatment, all of which have the goal of reducing your symptoms and getting you back to an active lifestyle without knee pain slowing you down. In some severe cases, surgery may be the only option. However, most instances of surgery can be avoided (except in the case of severe injury) by being proactive about these other treatment options.
Some of the common at-home treatment options for knee pain include:
- Over the counter medication — Some over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen can help reduce the pain and inflammation in your knees. This is a good option if your pain is mild and rare, but it is not a long-term solution.
- RICE — Does anyone remember this from health class in high school? Rest, ice, compression and elevation: RICE. This tried-and-true method is great for minor injuries, such as a sprained ligament from not stretching enough before biking.
- Daily stretches — Stretching the ligaments and tendons in your knee can help reduce any pain and pulling you feel behind your kneecap or in the back of your leg. This can also help reduce your risk of future injury, so win-win here.
If you’ve tried at-home treatments for a couple of weeks, and you’re still experiencing knee pain, it’s time to see a physical therapist. Fortunately, you don’t need a referral from your doctor to see a physical therapist; you can go directly to your nearest PT clinic and schedule an appointment.
Physical therapy treatments include:
- Soft tissue manipulation — Soft tissue manipulation can reduce swelling and bring in new joint fluid to the area, which is especially helpful if the knee joint has lost fluid and is worn down from degeneration or arthritis.
- Knee joint mobilization — This is a great treatment to help improve function and mobility, while decreasing pain for patients with osteoarthritis and other causes of inflammation in the knee.
- Hot/cold therapy — This simple treatment is proven to help reduce swelling and inflammation, and may be used for patients who have arthritis or an injury to the tendons/ligaments in the knee that is causing pain and swelling.
- Kinesiology taping — Kinesiology taping for the knee can help improve circulation, reduce swelling and support the muscles surrounding the knee joint — all of which can increase function and decrease pain.
- Therapeutic exercises and stretches — Certain exercises and stretches are designed to build the muscles around the knee joint so that the joint can better support the weight of the body during movement without much pain or discomfort.
When to See a Physical Therapist for Knee Pain
If your knee pain is mild and only lasts a few days — and it’s not really limiting you from your normal activities too much — you can probably try some of the at-home treatments listed above. However, there are a few warning signs indicating that you should see a physical therapist about your knee pain, such as:
- Pain that worsens despite at-home treatment
- Pain that lasts longer than two weeks
- Pain that is sudden, caused by an injury
- Pain that prevents you from your normal activities
- Additional symptoms that include pain down your legs, numbness or tingling in your calves or feet, or stabbing pain in your knee or leg during certain movements.
Fortunately, you don’t need a doctor’s referral to seek treatment for your knee pain from a physical therapist. If you’re ready to get back to the lifestyle you enjoy, you can contact our office today or find a location near you online to schedule an appointment.
At Lattimore Physical Therapy, we’re here to help you get back on your feet.