10 tips for dealing with knee pain

Our physical therapists share what you need to know to understand and avoid knee pain.

Man running up steps

Knees. You might take yours for granted until you hurt one. Knee pain can quickly make common movements difficult or even excruciating.

Brianna Bren and Rob Himmerick are specialists when it comes to knees. Both are physical therapists with the Institute for Athletic Medicine and work with patients to help heal and prevent musculoskeletal injuries. Here are their top tips for understanding and treating knee pain.

1. Knee pain is never normal

The knee’s purpose is to help you bear weight and absorb shock when you move. A healthy knee is strong and pain-free with a good range of motion. If you experience knee pain, a “no pain, no gain” mentality doesn’t do you any good. In fact, fighting through knee pain instead of working to heal and prevent it can cause more pain in the long run. For example, ignoring knee pain that turns out to be a ligament tear could increase your likelihood of early onset arthritis.

2. Don’t make assumptions about the cause of the pain

It’s easy to jump to conclusions when you experience knee pain. If you’re young, active, and have a sports-related injury, you may assume you have a problem with your anterior cruciate ligament, commonly known as the ACL. If you’re over 50, you might assume it’s arthritis. While those are common, there are many other causes of knee pain. Identifying the true cause is key to successful treatment.

3. Traumatic vs. non-traumatic pain

A traumatic cause of knee pain is usually a specific event you can point to, like your knee buckling when you plant your foot wrong while running or playing sports.

A non-traumatic cause is something that builds up. If you shoot hoops with your friends every week or do small but repetitive motions in your workout routine, you could develop soreness that gets worse over time. Obesity is another non-traumatic cause of pain, because excess weight adds ongoing stress to the knees.

Non-traumatic knee pain can be just as serious as a traumatic injury.

4. Inflammation is a common culprit

Inflammation is one of the most common sources of knee pain. The tissues in your knee can become inflamed after being strained or torn, or when cartilage wears away and causes bone-on-bone friction. Treatment for knee pain usually begins with controlling and decreasing inflammation.

5. Managing inflammation with R.I.C.E.

Following R.I.C.E (rest, ice, compression, elevation) with your knee two to three times daily will help reduce inflammation. Each step has a role:

  • Rest: Resting your knee gives it a break from whatever irritating or aggravating activity is causing the inflammation.
  • Ice: Icing your knee for 15 minutes reduces inflammation by restricting blood flow. It also acts as an anesthetic, numbing or relieving pain. 
  • Compression: Compressing the knee with a tight wrap or bandage restricts excess blood flow and heat in the area.
  • Elevate: Elevating the knee and leg above your heart increases blood flow back to your heart, removing excess blood from your knee and allowing it to recirculate faster. 

Your doctor may also recommend taking an anti-inflammatory or pain-relieving over-the-counter medication for a short period of time.

6. Signs you should see someone about that knee pain

If you’re experiencing pain or swelling without any trauma to your knee, you can try R.I.C.E. for seven to 14 days. If the pain doesn’t go away, consider seeing a physical therapist. In most cases, you don’t need a doctor’s referral, though it’s always best to check with your health insurance plan to be sure.

If you experience a traumatic knee injury, hear a pop or a crack, or have difficulty putting weight on your knee, you should see a doctor to rule out something serious like a ligament injury or fracture.

7. Physical therapy — more than a Google search

Physical therapy is a proven way to relieve pain, restore full function to your muscles and joints, and prevent injuries from returning.

Physical therapists are experts in anatomy and biomechanics. They can help identify the source of your knee pain and teach you what to do — and not do — to be pain-free. They can also help you return to a certain activity, sport, or function by teaching you how to progress in a safe way.

Some people are skeptical about giving physical therapy a try if they haven’t had a specific injury or surgery, and turn to internet advice. While some videos and articles provide great overviews on building strength and maintaining flexibility in a given body part, they can’t diagnose the specific source of your knee pain and they’re no substitute for the customized instruction you need to address the source of your pain.

8. Pinpointing the issue

Different parts of your knee can cause different types of pain and discomfort. By listening to your symptoms and analyzing your movement, a physical therapist can narrow in on the issue and recommend a strategy for recovery. Here are some examples of sources of knee pain and possible symptoms:

  • Bone or cartilage: Catching and locking sensation; knee gets stuck in a certain position; difficulty straightening or bending the knee; blocked range of motion; pain is often under the kneecap or deep in the joint. 
  • Ligaments: Feeling of instability, like your knee wants to give way.
  • Tendons: No or minimal pain at rest or lower levels of activity but more pain with more intense activity; you can touch exactly where it hurts; pain is right on the front of the knee joint. 
  • Muscles: Pain is above or below the knee joint. 
  • Nerves: If knee pain is present without swelling or instability, it could be related to back pain and the compression of nerves in your lower back or hip. This type of pain is usually based on your position, like when bending forward. 
  • Bursa: Pain gets worse with activity; pain is worse with the first couple of steps before loosening and feeling better. This might point to the bursa, which is like a cushion around tendons and bones that prevents them from rubbing. 

Depending on the source of pain, physical therapy sessions at the Institute for Athletic Medicine typically involve 40 minutes of one-on-one interaction and additional treatment methods such as electrical stimulation, ice and compression machines, taping techniques , dry needling (similar to acupuncture), or blood flow restriction training.

Many of our patients find a significant difference in pain levels in just four to six sessions.

9. Preventing knee pain from returning

The best way to prevent knee pain or injuries from returning is to do a proper course of physical therapy, followed by staying active, maintaining a healthy weight, and limiting excessive stress on the knees.

Prior to physical activity, make sure you’re warming up the right mechanics in your body. Athletes looking to avoid knee injuries should consider preseason conditioning programs to focus on core strength and landing mechanics. For older adults, especially those with arthritis, remember that “motion is lotion.” Consistent, comfortable movement is therapeutic for knees and can help prevent pain.

10. Keep your knees strong

Knee strength isn’t just about your quad and hamstring muscles. The stronger you are in your hips and core, the less force goes through your knees when you move. If you want to build strength in your knees by targeting certain muscles, be sure to include your glutes and core muscles in your exercise routines.

If you experience pain in any joint, don’t let it hold you back. Call612-672-7100 to make an appointment, or click to request a personal consultation.

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