Knee pain is something nearly every person experiences at one point or another, usually related to a particular injury or provocative activity, such as lots of kneeling for spring planting in the yard or playing the occasional game of basketball. How do you know the difference between a serious injury versus simple overuse? The causes of knee pain typically fall into one of three categories: traumatic, overuse, and degenerative.
Traumatic is self-explanatory; a fall, collision, twist, or awkward landing can create enough force to damage the structures inside the joint. When this type of damage occurs, the person may experience severe and immediate swelling, severe pain, a loss of ability to move the joint, and an inability to bear weight through the limb; a safe bet is when two of the three exist, the person should seek medical attention from a physician and/or physical therapist immediately. Attempting to “walk it off” is not recommended.
An overuse injury can be a little tougher to recognize. Starting a fitness program or a dramatic change in a person’s activity level (more or less) can provoke this type of pain. So can rapid increases in body weight, such as pregnancy. Adolescents who are going through growth spurts will often have pain in the knees because of changes in the way the muscles and joint function together. The pain may show up immediately or gradually, appearing more and more frequently until it is constant. Swelling may appear but is typically not severe and disappears overnight. Depending on the structure inside the knee that is taking the abuse, surgery may be needed, but many times this is treated quickly and effectively with a short course of rest, stretching and strengthening.
“Degenerative” describes the normal changes our joints experience with aging, specifically thinning of the articular cartilage and the loss of quality in the soft tissue of the joint. Knee pain from degenerative changes generally does not produce swelling and is provoked by remaining in one position for a great deal of time.
Besides pain, a problem within the knee (or any joint) will also cause the muscles around the joint to stop working effectively. Over time this will produce a loss of muscle size as well as a loss of control of the joint. The longer the joint remains untreated, the more severe the muscle atrophy and loss in function will become. Other joints may become painful as a result, particularly the areas above and below the injured joint or the opposite side. Medical treatment should begin before the body learns bad movement patterns.
Unless severe structural damage is present, a course of physical therapy will often be successful in getting rid of pain and restoring a person’s usual activity level. Any physician can refer to physical therapy and in many states no referral is required; in most cases, the therapist can make an accurate assessment of the problem and begin treatment immediately. If the problem is severe enough that a specialist should be involved, the therapist can facilitate the referral and also make recommendations for any diagnostic testing.