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Knee Pain, Causes & Treatment

Being one of the most complex joints in the body, the knee is prone to many problems. The knee joint not only has to bear most of the body weight, but it also has to allow for simultaneous movement and stability that can create significant strain on the joint.

Naturally symptoms such as knee pain are not an uncommon occurrence. It tends to resolve as quickly as it arises. But when knee pain becomes a daily burden and is accompanied by profound joint swelling, stiffness and instability, it needs to be investigated further.

What is knee pain?

Knee pain is actually a symptom of some underlying problem involving the knee joint. It is not a disorder or disease on its own. The pain can emanate from any one of the many structures that make up the knee joint, particularly the bones, joint cartilage and inner lining (synovium), ligaments and even surrounding muscles. Knee pain can therefore be described as pain emanating from the location of the knee joint that often varies with flexing and extending at the knee joint.

Causes of Knee Pain

The causes of knee pain can be diverse, and it varies significantly depending on whether the pain is acute or chronic.

Acute knee pain is not uncommon in everyday life. After a long day of standing or walking distances greater than what our body and specifically our knee joint is accustomed to, can elicit pain. It is largely due to acute inflammation and strain.

The knee being one of the main weight-bearing joints in the body also faces a new epidemic of modern times – obesity. A heavier body weight means that the knee joint has to bear a greater force even when a person is standing. The joint may not have developed to a degree that can handle this increased force on a daily basis.

Similarly acute knee pain may arise with an injury like a fall or sharp or blunt force trauma to the joint. Acute knee pain may not be a cause for concern in that it will ease once it is treated or the joint is rested and is unlikely to recur unless the specific set of circumstances are repeated.

It is, however, chronic knee joint problems that tend to be the reason that most people worry. We all hear of debilitating knee arthritis, leaving patients almost immobile and even requiring surgery.

There are various types of chronic arthritis that can affect the knee joint but osteoarthritis is by far the most common.

Osteoarthritis of the knee arises with wear and tear of the articular cartilages – the caps of strong smooth connective tissue that protect the ends of the bones in the knee joint and reduces friction with joint movement. As this cartilage erodes, eventually the underlying bone is affected and the condition progresses gradually over time.

Another less common cause of chronic knee pain is rheumatoid arthritis and post-traumatic arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system attacks the joint lining. Post-traumatic arthritis, as the name suggests, is the inflammation that continues after a severe injury to the knee joint.

Treatment of Knee Pain

The treatment approach to knee pain is as diverse as the causes of this symptom. One mode of treatment that may be effective for a specific cause of knee pain may not be so for another cause.

Ideally the cause of knee pain should be diagnosed and the appropriate treatment as prescribed by a doctor needs to be implemented. However, there are several general measures that can helpful in most cases.

Physical injury.

Sports Injury Treatment

If you enjoy sports, injuring yourself at some time or another goes with the territory. Here are some tips on how you can make life easier for yourself when that happens.

Heat and Chronic Sports Injuries

Using heat therapy with a wheat bag over sore or tight muscles and joints before exercise helps increase blood circulation and brings additional nutrients and oxygen to the affected area, thereby increasing the elasticity of joint connective tissue. Heat is also good for relaxing muscle spasms. If you have a tender or tight spot, apply heat for 15 minutes before exercise, using a layer between your skin and heat pad to prevent burns.
Note: Heat is generally used for chronic injuries or injuries that have no inflammation or swelling.

Cold and Acute Sport Injuries

The initial treatment for most acute soft tissue injuries e.g. bruises or strains is to prevent and reduce the swelling which causes pain and limits muscle use. To reduce swelling, immediately apply ice to the injury with a bag of frozen vegetables or a frozen wheat bag used as a cold compress. To prevent frostbite, let the area warm completely before repeating.

Note: Don’t apply heat to either acute injuries or injuries which seem inflamed as heat increases circulation and raises skin temperature. Apply ice from the beginning to acute injuries. Once healing has begun heat may be helpful to ease muscle tension.

Treatment Tips for Sports Injuries

Stop exercising: The first sign of any sports injury is usually sudden pain. Stop activity immediately and rest the injured part.

Compression: Use elastic compression bandages to limit swelling and prevent blood and fluid from entering the injured area.

Elevation: Keep the injured leg, knee, arm, elbow or wrist raised above the level of the heart. This may also help to reduce swelling.

Immobilize the injured area: You may need to prevent the affected area from moving too much. Once you have initiated the treatment process and during times when you are not elevating the area, use a sling, splint or immobilizer to prevent further injury.

Painkillers: Pain is the primary symptom for sports injuries due to the swelling and inflammation. Anti-inflammatory medications work by reducing the inflammation that occurs and reduces the discomfort.

Starting to move again: Once healing begins, gentle stretching may reduce adhesions and scar tissue formation and improve muscle function. After an injury, it is essential for joints to return to proper alignment, therefore slowly increasing the range of motion in the injured joint or muscle is a positive action. It is also a good idea to include exercises that target joint stability. Finally, after the injury has healed, strengthening exercises can be begun.

Sports massage: Massage can be an effective method of speeding up recovery as it encourages the flow of blood into the affected area and the blood nutrients help repair any damaged tissue. It can increase flexibility in the affected body part. Note: Not recommended if you have a soft-tissue injury e.g. torn ligament.

Physiotherapy: This involves using massage, manipulation and special exercises to improve the range of motion and return the function of injured area to normal.