Knee pain can be caused by disease or injury. Among American adults, approximately 25% have experienced knee pain affecting the function of the knee. The prevalence of knee pain has increased over the past 20 years, with osteoarthritis being the most common cause in individuals over the age of 50. Knee pain that is caused by injury is most often associated with knee cartilage tears. Knee injuries can occur as the result of a direct blow or sudden movement that strains the knee beyond its normal range of movement. Knee pain can cause difficulty performing activities such as walking, rising from a chair, climbing stairs, or playing sports. Physical therapists are specially trained to help diagnose and treat knee pain, and help individuals return to their normal activities without pain or limitation.
The knee joint is a hinge joint that connects the tibia (shin bone), and the femur (thigh bone) at the patella (knee cap). There are 4 main ligaments that support the knee joint. They are the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL); posterior cruciate ligament (PCL); medial collateral ligament (MCL); and lateral collateral ligament (LCL). There are also 2 rings of cartilage that act as shock absorbers in the knee, called the medial and lateral meniscus.
The most common cause of knee pain is osteoarthritis, a condition that occurs when the cartilage that protects the inside surfaces of the tibia and femur bones called articular cartilage gradually wears away, resulting in pain and swelling in the knee.
Knee pain can occur suddenly for no apparent reason or develop slowly, as the result of repetitive trauma. Knee pain occurs in different parts of the knee, depending on what structures in the knee are involved. Below is a general breakdown of the areas in which knee pain may occur and the structures of the knee that may be involved:
Your physical therapist will make a diagnosis based on your symptoms, medical history, and a thorough examination. Your physician may order an X-ray and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to complete the diagnosis.
Your physical therapist will perform an evaluation that will start with discussing your medical history and your symptoms. Your therapist will ask questions to determine where your pain is located, if you sustained any trauma or injury to the knee, and what functional daily activities are painful or difficult for you to perform. Your physical therapist will perform tests to find out if you have:
Based on the findings of your evaluation, your physical therapist will develop a customized rehabilitation program to ensure a safe return to your desired activities. Some general treatment techniques may include:
Your physical therapist, in consultation with your surgeon, will be able to tell you how much activity you can do depending on the type of knee surgery (such as total knee replacement) you undergo. Your therapist and surgeon also might have you participate in physical therapy prior to surgery to increase your strength and motion. This can sometimes help with recovery after surgery.
Following surgery, your physical therapist will design a personalized rehabilitation program for you and help you gain the strength, movement, and endurance you need to return to performing the daily activities you did before.