How Do I Know if My Knee Pain Is Serious?
Reviewed By - Sean Byers, MD

Published: Last Updated: Category: Knee Pain
  • Knee injuries demand immediate medical treatment. Individuals should assess the injury to see whether they need an orthopedic surgeon or specialist. Swelling is a crucial injury indicator. Sports medicine doctors say it’s a symptom of knee damage.
  • Knee pain affects most adults and is often associated with normal wear and tear from daily activities, such as walking, bending, and lifting. Although injury or aging causes an individual’s knee pain, the symptom can be incapacitating in certain conditions.
  • Trauma to the knee, like a knee injury, can tear the menisci. Menisci are pads of connective tissue that enhance stability and act as shock absorbers. 
  • Cartilage tears are often associated with sprains. Therapy may include wearing a brace during physical activity to avoid further knee injuries. Surgery may also be required to repair the tear.

Knee pain affects about 25% of adults, and its prevalence has grown by 65% in the last 20 years, resulting in 4 million primary care visits yearly. 

Most adults feel knee pain from walking, bending, and lifting. The discomfort may be severe, whether from injury or adult age. 

Health Report Live aims to cover the common causes of knee pain, its symptoms, diagnosis, treatments, and recommendations on when to seek medical advice. 

This comprehensive guide is developed to give the elderly important information regarding joint pain and ways to manage the symptoms. 

How Can You Tell if Your Knee Pain Is Serious?

If you’ve injured your knee, it can be a severe issue that requires immediate attention. It’s essential to assess the damage and determine if you should see an orthopedic surgeon or healthcare specialist.

One of the most important signs to look for when it comes to an injury is swelling. According to Christina Allen, MD, a sports medicine specialist, swelling is usually a sign that something serious has happened to your knee.

Common Signs That Your Knee Pain Is Serious

Individuals may determine if their knee pain is severe if they exhibit the following symptoms:

1. Deformity of the Joint

Joint deformities may occur in every joint of the body. Still, they are most prevalent in the hands, which include a large number of joints that are in almost constant use. 

Joint deformities may occur for a variety of reasons. Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis are two of the most frequent causes.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory condition affecting more than just the joints. This illness may cause harm to an individual’s range of physiological systems, including the eyes, lungs, skin, heart, and blood vessels. 

Meanwhile, osteoarthritis is the most prevalent kind of arthritis, impacting millions of individuals throughout the globe. It results from the gradual deterioration of the cartilage that cushions the ends of bones.

2. Difficulty Walking

Walking is a complicated interaction between numerous bodily systems. Balance, sensory, reflexes, motor function, and several other systems operate in tandem to facilitate proper gait.

Difficulty walking is the inability to walk correctly due to irregular and uncontrolled patterns. The cause can be hereditary or can be attributed to neurological illnesses, musculoskeletal issues, traumas, or other diseases. Irregular walking may negatively affect bones, muscles, and nerves of the legs.

3. Inability to Hold Weight

Inability to hold weight, inability to move the leg, and weakness are typical with injuries such as fractured bone, muscular strain, or tendinitis. These injuries may also accompany other symptoms, such as pain or bruising.

4. Knee Instability

Unless you have an ACL tear or other ligament rupture, the ligaments of the knee are generally the most neglected component of knee instability. Knee joint instability may also cause the knee cap to track abnormally, resulting in pain and cartilage degradation beneath the kneecap. 

Your Knee Feels Unstable, or You Felt or Heard a “Pop”

Knee instability may arise as a result of a sports-related fall or occasionally for no apparent reason. The knee feels unstable and buckles. There may be a popping sound present. If this occurs, it is possible that your patella (or kneecap) has been displaced. 

5. Less Sensation in the Knee

As in other regions of the body, the knee can perceive mild touch, warmth, vibration, and pain. The peripheral nerves provide signals to the spinal cord, which runs through the back, and then to the brain. 

The femoral nerve transmits messages of sensation from the knee. Problems may cause numbness at any point along the sensory route from the knee.

6. Long-Term Knee Pain or Discomfort

Although it’s common for individuals to feel discomfort in their joints, chronic knee pain can be incredibly debilitating. It can make it hard to perform simple tasks, such as walking. Not seeking treatment can also worsen the situation.

Knee pain may influence your mood, mainly if it lasts for an extended period, and feeling depressed can worsen the pain. 

7. Knee Pain That Affects Your Daily Activities or Your Normal Movement

Knee instability is prevalent. In severe cases, they create discomfort that impedes daily activities, including walking. You may experience this discomfort while bending your knee or consistently placing weight on it.

Also, knees are intended to flex in both directions and rotate somewhat. When a knee cannot accomplish these duties, mobility and the ability to do everyday activities such as sitting, standing, squatting, and kneeling are compromised.

8. Knee Pain That Affects Sleep

Knee pain at night may be annoying, particularly considering that you probably have no difficulty during the day. Only when you lie down to sleep does it seem as if the pain surges forward to keep you awake and interrupt your sleep.

While exercise throughout the day adds to the knee discomfort you experience at night, the fact that you’ve slowed down enough to notice also plays a role.

9. Redness or Swelling Around the Joint

A swollen knee may be caused by trauma, overuse injuries, or a disease or illness that lies under the surface. Your doctor may need to acquire a fluid sample to test for infection, illness, or damage to determine the reason for the swelling.

10. Reduced Range of Motion

The following can cause loss of knee motion: 

  • Acute knee injury
  • Lack of appropriate rehabilitation after a surgical procedure or injury
  • Arthrofibrosis (common after anterior cruciate ligament [ACL] reconstruction or lower extremity fractures)
  • Relative disuse due to severe injury or degenerative joint disease
  • Displaced bucket-handle meniscus tears
  • Mucoid degeneration of the ACL
  • Posterior cruciate ligament 

You Have Significant Weakness Trying to Straighten or Extend Your Knee Fully

A twisting or direct contact injury usually causes a knee injury. After a while, most individuals think that their injury is just a simple strain. However, if they have a history of knee osteoarthritis, they might eventually lose the ability to straighten their knee.

11. Your Knee Keeps Buckling Under Pressure

Knee buckling, often known as a knee “giving way,” is a sign of knee instability that commonly affects elderly people. Knee buckling particularly affects those with knee pain and knee osteoarthritis (OA). 

Muscular weakening and balance issues can cause knee buckling. 

Suppose knee instability leads to frequent falls and fall-related injuries. In that case, knee stabilization exercises and other therapies may help older adults in preserving their health and quality of life.

12. Your Knee Is Locked

A locked knee is a condition where a knee cannot be bent or straight. There are two types of a locked knee: a true locked knee and a pseudo locked knee. 

A pseudo locked knee is caused by pain and prevents the joint from moving, while a true locked knee is when the knee joint is locked into place. 

What Is Knee Pain?

Most people experience knee pain at some point in their adult lives. It usually involves general wear and tears from activities such as walking, bending, and lifting. 

The symptom can be debilitating in certain situations, whether knee pain is caused by injury or aging. 

What Causes Knee Pain?

Accidents or overuse injuries are common causes of damage to a muscle, tendon, or ligament, resulting in knee pain. Meanwhile, osteoarthritis, a type of arthritis, is often the cause of chronic knee discomfort as individuals age. 

Most knee problems are brought about by the aging process and constant wear and strain on the knee joint (such as knee arthritis). Examples of common knee problems include:

  • Knee ligament tear or ruptured muscles. A knee blow or an abrupt knee twist typically results in a sprained or strained knee ligament or muscle. 
  • Arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most prevalent kind of arthritis affecting the knee. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease in which joint cartilage progressively deteriorates. Meanwhile, rheumatoid arthritis may damage the knees by inflaming the joint and damaging knee cartilage. 
  • Tendonitis. Overuse of a tendon during specific sports such as running, leaping, or cycling may result in tendon inflammation. Patellar tendonitis is sometimes known as jumper’s knee. 

Knee Injuries

A knee injury can tear the menisci, which are pads of connective tissue that enhance stability and act as shock absorbers. Cartilage tears often occur with sprains. To prevent future damage to the knee, doctors may prescribe treatments that may entail wearing a brace during physical exercise.

Common Knee Injuries

Sprains and tears of soft tissues (e.g., ligaments and meniscus), fractures, and dislocation are the most common knee injuries. In many instances, knee injuries affect more than one knee structure.

Here are the most common knee injuries:

  • Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Damage

An anterior cruciate ligament injury is the tearing or overstretching of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). A tear may be either partial or complete. 

The incidence of ACL injury is rising in adults over 40, resulting in a corresponding rise in surgical repair.

  • Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL) Injury

The posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) binds the upper and lower legs together. Even though the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) is bigger and stronger than the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), a PCL can still be damaged. Individuals with a PCL injury may experience discomfort, inflammation, and other symptoms.

  • Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) Injury 

MCL is a stretch, partial tear, or total tear of the ligament on the inner side of the knee. It is one of the most frequent knee injuries and is often caused by valgus stress on the knee.

When the knee is strained, patients experience discomfort, considerable joint laxity, and severe soreness on the knee’s interior.

  • Fractures-Patellar Fracture

The patella is a small bone that sits at the front of the knee – where the femur (thighbone) and tibia (shinbone) meet.   

Since the patella acts as a shield for the knee joint, it is prone to fracture, especially if someone falls directly onto their knees. 

Numerous knee fractures are induced by high-energy trauma, such as falls from great heights and automobile crashes.

  • Dislocation

A dislocated kneecap is a frequent injury that typically heals within six weeks. The patella (kneecap) often rests on the front of the knee. It slides along a groove in the joint when you bend or straighten your leg.

Tendonitis

Tendonitis occurs when an injured tendon swells or becomes inflamed. The condition may induce joint discomfort and stiffness and limit tendon mobility. 

You may self-treat minor tendon injuries and feel better within two to three weeks.

Osgood-Schlatter’s Disease

Osgood-Schlatter disease causes pain and swelling below the knee joint, at the tibial tuberosity, where the patellar tendon attaches to the tibia.

Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome

Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) is an umbrella term for pain at the front of the knee and around the patella or kneecap. PFPS is commonly referred to as “runner’s knee” or “jumper’s knee” due to its prevalence among athletes, particularly females and young adults, although it may also affect non-athletes.

Arthritis

Arthritis is the inflammation and pain of one or more joints. Joint pain and stiffness are the primary symptoms of arthritis pain, which generally increase with age. Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the most prevalent kinds of arthritis.

Cartilage, the tough, slippery tissue that covers the ends of bones where they form a joint, deteriorates due to osteoarthritis. Meanwhile, in rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system assaults the joints, starting with the joint lining.

Managing Symptoms of Knee Pain

Some individuals with minor knee pain can benefit from self-care measures to relieve their discomforts, such as wearing knee braces or physical therapy. However, in some cases, surgery is necessary. 

Meanwhile, over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) may alleviate pain, swelling, and inflammation. Ibuprofen (like Advil and Motrin IB) and naproxen sodium are examples (Aleve). 

Others may do the following to manage the symptoms of knee pain: 

Balancing Rest and Exercise

Aside from avoiding more vigorous exercises, you should also try taking breaks from your usual activities. Doing so will allow you to rest. You might have to use crutches or stay off your feet for a short time for acute injuries.

Stretching the muscle strains is an essential aspect of injury prevention. Strengthening activities build muscle to help support the knee, but they can also stiffen the muscle.

Joining a Weight Management Program

Getting active and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help prevent knee pain, which is often caused by arthritis. Some of the most effective ways to treat knee pain are weight loss and exercises to strengthen the muscles around the joint.

Significant research published in Arthritis and Rheumatism on overweight and obese persons with knee osteoarthritis (OA) indicated that a one-pound weight loss resulted in a four-pound reduction in knee pressure. In other words, reducing only ten pounds would provide pain relief on your knees of 40 pounds of strain.

Using Heat or Ice Packs

For best results, you can apply ice cubes to your knee for around 15 to 20 minutes a couple of times a day. You can also use frozen vegetables to treat knee pain.

Wearing Suitable Footwear

The shoes you wear substantially affect the posture and motion of your feet and, by extension, your knee. 

Properly supported feet enable natural movement, correct leg, and knee alignment, and decrease knee-damaging pressure. Conversely, improper footwear causes knee damage and discomfort.

Should You Seek Medical Attention for Your Knee Pain?

If a very hard impact caused your knee discomfort, it is accompanied by:

  • Redness
  • Significant swelling
  • Sensitivity and heat around the joint
  • Fever
  • Significant pain

If you’ve been experiencing mild knee discomfort for some time, schedule an appointment with your doctor, especially if your symptom interferes with your everyday activities or sleep.

How Long Should Knee Pain Last Before Seeing a Doctor?

Individuals experiencing knee pain should consult a healthcare professional for pain lasting more than 48 hours. If there is no apparent improvement after three weeks, they should see a specialist. 

When Should You Go to the ER for Knee Pain?

When knee discomfort is severe, particularly when accompanied by weakness and restricted range of motion, seek urgent medical assistance. Go to urgent care or the emergency room if you are experiencing significant knee pain, mainly because of a collision.

Seek Immediate Medical Attention

Here are five instances when you should seek medical advice for knee pain.

  1. You can’t walk properly.
  2. The pain is constantly coming back.
  3. The pain is persistent.
  4. The knee is deformed, swollen, or warm.
  5. The discomfort worsens rather than improves.

Schedule a Doctor’s Visit

Knee pain symptoms that require a doctor’s visit include:

  • Sudden knee swelling 
  • Inability to hold one’s weight 
  • Needing assistance when walking
  • The knee feels painful and warm to the touch 

Diagnosis

In addition to a comprehensive medical history and physical exam, other tests may be performed for knee problems:

  • X-ray: It is an imaging test that uses electromagnetic energy to visualize different body parts.
  • Arthroscopy: It is a minimally invasive procedure used to treat various conditions related to a joint. 
  • Radionuclide bone scan: It is a nuclear imaging procedure used to visualize the activity of the bone and its blood flow.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): It is a type of imaging test that uses large magnets and radio waves to visualize different body parts. 
  • CT Scan: It is a type of imaging test known as a computed tomography scan used to visualize different body parts. 

What Happens if Knee Pain Is Left Untreated?

Leaving the source of severe knee pain untreated may often result in additional damage and serious complications.

Your knee may enlarge, become unstable, lock up, and deform. Your unbearable knee pain will persist unless you get therapy. The damage may be worse, and treatment choices may be more restricted.

You should not delay receiving a medical diagnosis whether your significant knee pain is caused by an accident or a degenerative condition. 

Heath Report Live recommends using this guide to determine the source of your knee pain and get the necessary treatment immediately.

Sources

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