Osteoarthritis, ligament tears and other conditions can cause knee pain, which can range from annoying to debilitating. Learn more about some common causes of knee pain as well as the treatment options available at Northeast Spine and Sports Medicine.
Knee pain can range from annoying to debilitating, and getting relief from that pain can be important to your quality of life. The causes of knee pain vary and can include conditions such as osteoarthritis or injuries such as ligament tears.
Discover more about some common causes of knee pain below as well as how they might be treated.
Baker’s cysts, also called popliteal cysts, develop behind the knee joint. They occur when the synovial fluid that allows the knee joint to move smoothly builds up inside a sac. Some people don’t notice they have a baker’s cyst, while others experience swelling in the affected area and feel a hard, raised area.
Baker’s cysts can cause mild to severe pain. They can also make the joint stiff and restrict normal knee movement.
Baker’s cysts are often caused by an existing issue with the knee joint, such as osteoarthritis. They also sometimes develop following a knee injury.
Occasionally, baker’s cysts can rupture. When this happens, patients may feel a trickling sensation down the back of the calf and experience more severe pain and swelling than usual. It’s important to seek prompt medical attention for a suspected burst cyst.
Around 28.5% of people with knee pain develop a baker’s cyst, usually occurring alongside another joint condition. People with conditions such as osteoarthritis and joint effusion in the knee are more prone to baker’s cysts than the rest of the population.
Baker’s cysts sometimes resolve on their own or following treatment of the underlying cause, such as arthritis. Doctors often recommend starting with conservative treatment, including icing and resting the joint. Physical therapy can help stabilize the knee joint and reduce pain and stiffness.
If this is unsuccessful, injecting the affected joint with steroids can help treat the pain. When the baker’s cyst is large or causing significant problems, a doctor may recommend draining the fluid by drawing it out with a thin needle.
Osgood-Schlatter disease affects the knee, specifically the patellar tendon, causing tenderness, pain and swelling immediately below the kneecap. The condition is named for the two physicians that defined the disorder. It’s frequently found in growing adolescents, particularly those who are physically active and participate in sports.
The patellar tendon connects the quadricep muscles to the tibia. Activities that involve the thigh muscles put stress on the patellar tendon, especially at the insertion point on the tibia. The tugging of the tendon irritates the growth plate at the tip of the tibia and may cause a hard bump to form below the knee. This lump may remain into adulthood, although the pain usually subsides as the child grows.
Osgood-Schlatter disease is prevalent among active adolescents. It’s most often found in individuals whose sports require a great deal of running and jumping, like volleyball and track. The onset of the condition often coincides with a growth spurt, usually between the ages of 10 and 15. Some individuals may experience the disease in both knees, but it more frequently shows up in one knee.
Osgood-Schlatter disease is easily treated, and most athletes recover entirely by the time their tibia completes its development. Resting from activities that stress the patellar tendon is usually the first step to reducing the pain and inflammation of Osgood-Schlatter disease. Other standard therapies include:
Patellofemoral syndrome, also known as runner’s knee, describes a condition where the area around the kneecap (patella) becomes inflamed and painful. The pain is usually dull and aching and is often caused by repeatedly straining the knee. Knee trauma and weak knee muscles can also cause patellofemoral syndrome.
Patellofemoral syndrome pain often feels worse when the knee is flexed or under pressure. The affected joint may appear swollen, and some patients report a grinding feeling when they move their knee.
Patellofemoral syndrome is relatively common, affecting around 25% of people engaging in regular physical activity and between 3 and 6% of the general population. Women are at a higher risk of developing patellofemoral syndrome than men. It’s also common during adolescence because rapid growth can cause disparities in skeletal size and muscle mass, a risk factor for patellofemoral syndrome.
Resting and icing the knee can often reduce the discomfort associated with patellofemoral syndrome, and affected individuals can take over-the-counter painkillers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
Physical therapy is the most common treatment for patellofemoral syndrome. Treatment usually focuses on strengthening the muscles supporting the knee and improving posture to stabilize the joint. Therapists sometimes recommend using tape or a brace to support the affected knee. They may also advise refraining from sports or sticking to low-impact exercise like swimming during recovery.
Surgery is sometimes necessary to treat patellofemoral syndrome if an injury or joint condition causes it. The most common surgical solution for patellofemoral syndrome is an arthroscopy, where damaged cartilage is removed from the patella. Occasionally, the kneecap may need to be realigned to resume normal function.
The meniscus is a soft crescent-shaped section of cartilage that cushions the knee joint and absorbs shock. Turning the knee violently can lead to a meniscus tear. This injury often occurs during sports, especially those involving pivoting motions. It can also be caused by arthritis in the knee joint.
The most common signs of a meniscus tear are pain, swelling and stiffness in the affected joint. Individuals with a meniscus tear may find it hard to bend or straighten their knee or feel like the knee can’t support their weight. Some people also hear a popping noise at the point of injury or when they try to move the joint afterward.
A meniscus tear places people at a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis in the affected knee.
Meniscus tears are relatively common, and around 61 in every 100,000 people will experience a torn meniscus. The injury is more common in men than women. Athletes participating in physical activities requiring a pivoting movement, such as basketball, are at a higher risk than the rest of the population.
Many meniscus tears can be conservatively treated by resting the affected knee and applying ice regularly. A doctor may recommend physiotherapy to strengthen the knee muscles and stabilize the joint.
If non-invasive treatments don’t work, surgery to repair the injured meniscus might be required. People with a more severe injury may require a meniscus transplant. If the meniscus tear was caused by osteoarthritis, a doctor might suggest a knee replacement if symptoms don’t improve with regular arthritis treatment. Exercises or physical therapy may be prescribed to help strengthen the knee muscles before or following surgery.
Ligaments are tissue that connect bones in the body. For example, there are ligaments connecting the various bones in the fingers and hands to each other to support the structure and movement of the hand. While these fibrous tissues are strong, they can be strained or torn by impact, overuse or incorrect use.
When a ligament is stretched beyond its normal limits, a strain can occur. If the tissue connecting the bones is damaged or torn, that can result in a ligament tear. This can occur anywhere in the body where ligaments connect bone, but common areas for ligament strains include the back, neck, wrist, thumb, knee and ankle. Ligament injuries usually cause pain, tenderness to the impacted area, swelling and problems moving or putting pressure or weight on the injured area.
Ligament injuries are fairly common, especially among people who participate in sports or regular exercise programs. They can also be more likely for people who work in physically demanding jobs or who exert themselves suddenly without being properly conditioned for the effort. Ankle sprains are the most common, with about 25,000 people experiencing a sprained ankle daily, but they also commonly occur in the knees.
The most common treatment for mild to moderate ligament strains is the RICE method, which is resting the area, applying ice to reduce swelling, applying compression via braces or bandages and elevating the area. Pain relievers may also be used to alleviate symptoms.
In moderate to severe cases, including those involving a tear, other treatment might be considered. Physical therapy, reconditioning and even surgery might be options, depending on the severity of the injury.
Patellar tendinitis, also known as jumper’s knee, is a condition where the tendon attaching the kneecap (patella) to the shin becomes damaged. The patella tendon plays a vital role in extending the knee joint. Patellar tendinitis often causes problems with everyday activities such as walking. It also causes knee pain that may worsen with exercise.
Patellar tendinitis occurs when the patella tendon is placed under repetitive tension, which can gradually cause it to tear. It’s often caused by jumping. The condition can sometimes progress to tendinopathy, a term used to describe tendon damage that lasts for several weeks or more.
Patellar tendinitis is relatively common among people who participate in sports involving jumping. A 2019 study found that 33.7% of male collegiate basketball players in a test group had damage to at least one of their patellar tendons, although only 21.1% of the cohort presented with symptoms.
People with a muscular imbalance in their legs or overly tight leg muscles are also more likely to develop patellar tendinitis than the general population. The condition is also more common in people with preexisting conditions affecting blood flow to the knee, such as diabetes and lupus.
Doctors usually recommend treating patellar tendinitis conservatively before considering more invasive treatments. Anti-inflammatory painkillers can relieve discomfort, and physical therapy is often used to stretch the surrounding muscles and improve muscle support to the knee joint. Some patients also require a patellar tendon strap to reduce pressure on the affected tendon.
If conservative treatments prove unsuccessful, injecting the tendon with steroids can often help reduce pain and inflammation. In some cases, surgery to remove the damaged sections of the tendon may be required.
The knee joint is lined with a layer of cartilage that cushions the joint and reduces friction. Knee osteoarthritis is a condition where the knee cartilage degenerates and wears away. This causes increased friction in the joint as the bones grind together, leading to pain, joint stiffness and inflammation. The affected knee may feel swollen and less mobile than usual. In some cases, knee osteoarthritis leads to bone spurs in the joint.
Many cases of knee osteoarthritis are due to age, and some people are more genetically prone to the condition than others. Placing the knee under repeated strain, being overweight and having some preexisting conditions can also increase the likelihood of developing knee osteoarthritis.
Knee osteoarthritis is a common condition, especially in people older than 60. Around 10% of males and 13% of females over 60 have knee osteoarthritis severe enough to cause symptoms.
Knee osteoarthritis is less common in children and younger adults. Athletes are more likely to develop the condition if they participate in physical activities that strain the knee, such as running. However, exercise can also have a preventative effect because it strengthens the muscles supporting the joints.
Knee osteoarthritis treatments focus on reducing pain and improving joint mobility. Doctors often recommend physical therapy to improve muscle tone and flexibility. They may also recommend that overweight or obese individuals lose weight to reduce pressure on the knees.
Anti-inflammatory medications can help reduce the pain associated with knee arthritis. Steroid injections to reduce inflammation and hyaluronic acid injections to lubricate the joint can also relieve discomfort.
Sometimes, surgery is required to remove or repair damaged cartilage or realign the knee. More severe cases may require knee replacement surgery to relieve pain and restore normal movement.
Don’t settle for living with knee pain. If you’ve experienced mild or moderate knee pain for some time, leaving the issue untreated could result in a bigger issue later. Contact us today to make an appointment to find out what’s behind your knee pain and get help treating it.