Our knees handle a great deal of stress from everyday activities such as lifting, kneeling and climbing stairs as well as from athletic pursuits such as running, tennis, skiing and basketball. Knee pain generally occurs as the result of an injury, mechanical problem, arthritis or other inflammatory condition.
The knee is basically two long leg bones (the tibia and femur) held together by muscles, ligaments and tendons. The end of each bone is covered with a layer of cartilage that acts as a shock absorber and protects the kneecap (patella). There are also fluid-filled sacs (bursae) that cushion the outside of the knee joint so that tendons and ligaments glide over it smoothly.
Why Choose Cooper for Diagnosing and Treating Knee Pain and Problems
Cooper has a team of board-certified and fellowship-trained orthopaedic specialists as well as three sports medicine specialists—all with extensive experience in diagnosing and treating knee pain and problems. You can count on us for:
- Fast access: Our policy is to see sports-related injuries within 24 to 48 hours
- Advanced expertise: As South Jersey’s only tertiary care facility, we see the region’s most complex cases—a level of expertise you simply won’t find anyplace else in this area
- Personalized treatment: Treatment is based on your age, general health, lifestyle, and severity of symptoms, with a focus on relieving pain and restoring mobility in the least invasive way possible
- Multidisciplinary expertise: Some knee issues require the expertise of other specialists, such as rheumatologists in the case of certain forms of arthritis. As the region’s only academic health system, Cooper is home to experts in more than 75 specialties, giving you access to all the expertise you need, all in one place.
- Extensive physical rehabilitation resources: We have an entire team of skilled physical therapists to help you regain your strength and mobility after a knee injury or mechanical problem
Common Knee Problems
These are some of the most common knee problems doctors see:
- ACL tear: The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of four ligaments that connect the shinbone (tibia) to the thighbone (femur). An ACL tear is a common injury among people who play sports that require sudden pivots, like basketball or soccer.
- Torn meniscus: The meniscus is a pad of connective tissue (cartilage) that acts as a cushion and enhances the knee’s stability. A torn meniscus often occurs if you twist your knee while putting weight on it.
- Fractures: The knee bones, including the patella (kneecap), can be broken as a result of a fall or motor vehicle accident. People with osteoporosis (brittle bones) can also fracture their knee just by moving wrong.
- Knee bursitis: Some knee injuries cause inflammation in the bursae, triggering pain.
- Patellar tendinitis: Tendinitis is irritation and inflammation a tendon. Tendons are thick, fibrous tissues that connect muscles to bones. People who run, ski, cycle or play jumping sports may develop inflammation in the patellar tendon, which connects the quadriceps muscle on the front of the thigh to the shinbone.
- Arthritis: There are various types of arthritis that can cause knee pain and problems:
- Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative process in which the cartilage in the knee wears away, causing pain and stiffness.
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune form of arthritis that can also cause joint pain.
- Gout is a type of arthritis that occurs when uric acid crystals build up in the joint; it usually affects the big toe but can also occur in the knee.
- Pseudogout: The knee is the most common joint affected by pseudogout, which is caused by calcium-containing crystals that develop in the joint fluid
- Iliotibial band syndrome: The iliotibial band is a band of tissue that runs from the outside of the hip to the outside of the knee; if it becomes too tight, it rubs against the outer part of the femur and causes knee pain. Cyclists and distance runners are particularly susceptible to this condition.
- Floating body: Injury or degenerative disease can cause a piece of bone or cartilage to break off and float in the joint space. Sometimes, this can interfere with knee joint movement.
- Dislocated kneecap: This happens when the patella slips out of place, usually to the outside of the knee.
- Osteomyelitis [LINK to Osteomyelitis page]: This is a relatively rare but serious condition in which bones become infected.
Not all knee pain is serious—simple strains and minor cartilage damage to the knee may improve in a few days or weeks with self-care such as rest, applying ice, compression and elevating the affected limb.
But some injuries and degenerative conditions can lead to increasing pain, joint damage and disability if they’re not treated. Having a knee injury also increases your risk of having similar injuries in the future. So it’s important to seek care when symptoms begin to interfere with your ability carry out everyday activities and the quality of your life.
Causes and risk factors for knee pain and problems
There are several factors that can increase your risk of having knee problems. These include:
- Being overweight. Excess weight increases the stress on your knee joints, even during regular activities such as standing, walking, or going up and down stairs. Being overweight also increases the risk of osteoarthritis by causing joint cartilage to break down faster.
- Being out of shape: Having strong muscles can help stabilize and protect your joints, while muscle flexibility can help you achieve full range of motion. If you lack strength and flexibility, it can increase the risk of knee injuries.
- Certain sports or types of jobs: Some sports put greater stress on your knees than others. Downhill skiing, basketball with its jumps and pivots, and the repeated pounding of running all increase the risk of knee injury. Jobs like construction, carpet/tile installation or farming also put repetitive stress on the knees.
- Previous injury: Once you have a knee injury, you’re more likely to injure your knee again.
Symptoms of knee problems
Pain is the most obvious symptom of a knee injury or problem, but the location and degree of knee pain can vary depending on what’s causing the problem. Other symptoms that can occur along with knee pain include:
- Weakness or instability
- A clicking or grinding sensation
- Having your knee joint lock, catch or give way
- Difficulty walking
- Popping or crunching noises
- Being unable to fully straighten the knee
- Skin redness and/or warmth to the touch
Treating knee pain and problems
Treatment depends on the specific cause of your knee problem and is tailored to your unique situation. It may include:
- Rest: Avoiding activities that cause pain while your knee heals
- Icing: Applying cold packs to the knee several times a day
- Medications: Oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and/or corticosteroid injections to reduce inflammation
- Bracing to protect the knee joint from further injury during activity
- Physical therapy: Stretching and strengthening exercises to restore range of motion, ease pain and help you regain strength
- Surgery: When nonsurgical treatment doesn’t resolve symptoms, your doctor may recommend surgery. There are several types of knee surgery:
- Arthroscopy is a minimally invasive approach that is most often performed to remove bone or cartilage, or repair tendons or ligaments
- Knee osteotomy is an approach that focuses on fixing one section of the knee; it’s sometimes called a partial knee replacement
- Total knee replacement involves replacing the entire knee joint with prosthetic components