Knee pain

Knee pain is normally felt at the front of the knee, and the medical term is patellofemoral pain syndrome. This can occur for a variety of reasons, such as overuse of the knee, reduced strength of surrounding muscles, and a misalignment of the knee.

  • Symptoms of knee pain are usually caused by overexertion
  • Certain exercises can help to ease pain and prevent further injury
  • Treatment varies from using painkillers and resting to surgery

You can use our online video consultation service to speak to a doctor about knee pain online. Once you have booked an appointment, you will be able to speak to one of our GPhC-registered clinicians between 9.30am and 4.30pm, Monday to Friday.

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Possible causes

What causes knee pain?

Knee pain can be caused by a number of different factors. It’s normally a result of excess pressure on the kneecap, and this in turn pressing against the thigh bone. However, the knee is a very complex part of the body, so there are many different parts of it that can develop problems. 

Causes can include:

  • Increased use through exercise. Certain sports such as cycling (particularly when raised up off the saddle), squatting and running may be particular exacerbating factors in knee pain
  • Problems with the alignment of the kneecap and the thigh (due to certain surrounding muscles being weaker or stronger)
  • Weak hip muscles, which cause the kneecap to move
  • Issues with the foot where the arch is not strong enough, so the knee has to overcompensate and take more weight.

There are a few other common causes of knee pain. Patellar tendinopathy, or ‘jumper’s knee’, is a very painful condition where the tendon that runs along the kneecap to the shin bone, becomes inflamed. Knee bursitis is another common knee-related condition where the fluid-filled sac near the knee joint becomes inflamed. Another common cause of knee pain is arthritis in the joint between the thighbone and kneecap, which is called patellofemoral arthritis.

Knee pain can also be caused by acute injuries. These might be injuries affecting the cartilage (tissue found in the joints) or ligaments (tissue that connects bones).

Diagnosing the cause of knee pain

In order to diagnose knee pain, a doctor will ask you to describe what led to the pain; for example, whether there was a popping or snapping sound which indicates that a ligament has been ruptured, or whether there was severe swelling and how quickly it developed. Slow swelling would suggest a meniscal injury, whereas quick swelling suggests an anterior cruciate ligament rupture.

You may also be asked about whether you have had knee problems in the past and if you have been exercising vigorously, or been unstable on the knee. If the pain is worse during resting and is stiff, this could be an indication of a type of arthritis. 

Following assessment of a patient’s history, a doctor will want to examine the knee for signs of the following:

  • Effusion. If there is swelling, a doctor will massage the front of the knee to check if there is any fluid. It’s likely that they will tap the kneecap as well while it is extended for further fluid examination.
  • Tenderness. A doctor will press certain points in the kneecap, and other joints surrounding the knee.
  • Instability. There are various different movements that a doctor may ask you to do to see how stable the knee is, such as bending and extending it.

A clinician will likely check what your range of movement is, so they will ask you to walk, if possible, and observe your gait and flexion of the knee. An entire range of movement is supposed to be between three and 140 degrees.

There are a few further investigations that a doctor may wish to take after examining the knee and asking questions about the pain. An MRI scan can reveal cartilage problems and an X-ray can be useful for finding out whether there is a fracture. But most diagnoses of knee problems are made from clinical symptoms and a physical examination.

To speak to one of our GMC-registered doctors about knee pain, you can book an appointment through our online video consultation service. Our clinicians are available between 9.30am and 4.30pm, five days a week.

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020
Types of Treatment

How is knee pain treated?

Treatment for knee pain largely depends on what the cause of the pain is. Ligament injuries will often require surgery if there is a complete rupture, whereas other instances may just require painkillers and basic physiotherapy.

For many types of knee pain, the short term treatment focuses on resting adequately, taking painkillers, and doing physiotherapy.

Whilst the pain is still causing an issue, you should allow it to properly heal by not doing any strenuous exercise. However, this does not mean that you should stay inactive; it can help with recovery to keep fit by doing exercise that doesn’t impact the knee, such as swimming.

Physiotherapy can help to strengthen muscles that surround the knee and the hip, to ease the strain on the knee. A physiotherapist can also help to correct certain problems with the knee that may be causing misalignment. 

Another short-term solution that can provide some relief is using tape over the kneecap, which can restrict the way it moves and keep it in place. Longer-term treatment for knee pain is available in the form of extended physiotherapy, and wearing arch supporting-shoes.

Ligament ruptures focus on controlling the pain and swelling initially and wearing crutches, so that the knee does not have to take any weight. It’s most likely that any severe ligament rupture will require surgery followed by a lengthy rehabilitation period, to regain strength in the knee. 

There are stronger analgesics (painkillers) that a doctor may recommend to relieve pain. However, it is thought that they are not particularly effective for knee pain as compared to other types of pain. If you are an active person, you may need to modify your training in order to stop knee pain becoming a recurring problem.

Pain in the knee is not usually an indication of a serious condition, but if it has not ceased in a few weeks or if you are concerned, you should speak to a doctor. Our GMC-registered clinicians are available to consult with online about knee pain via our video consultation service. Appointment slots are available from 9.30am to 4.30pm, Monday to Friday. They can issue advice about your symptoms and treatments, and provide prescriptions and referrals to specialists, where appropriate.

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How long is it normal to experience knee pain for?

It depends entirely on the cause. Patellofemoral pain syndrome, which is another term for common knee pain, may only last for a few weeks before it completely recovers, whereas a rupture to a ligament can take months to completely heal.

Is knee pain serious?

Most people who partake in regular exercise will suffer from knee pain occasionally, and it’s  not usually an indication of a serious problem.

Injuries to the knee such as a rupture to a ligament are serious conditions that in many cases need surgery. However, it’s rare that pain in the knee requires urgent medical attention.

Can I get treatment for knee pain?

You can get treatment for knee pain in the form of NSAIDs and analgesics to relieve pain. Physiotherapy can also help to strengthen the muscles surrounding the knee.

In some cases, surgery may be necessary, particularly for ligament ruptures. This may involve reconstructing the ligament using a graft from elsewhere in the body. 

How can I prevent knee pain?

It’s difficult to completely eliminate the possibility of knee pain, particularly if you are a physically active person, or perform vigorous exercise regularly.

It’s important to stay active, so the prospect of encountering knee pain if you don’t already have it shouldn't deter you from exercising altogether.

There are a few basic measures you can take to limit your chances of developing pain in the knee. Maintaining a healthy weight to limit the amount of stress you place in the knee is important, as is not exercising too vigorously, or increasing your exercise routine dramatically.

Can I speak to a doctor online about knee pain?

If you are experiencing pain in your knee and would like to speak to one of our clinicians, you can do so using our online video consultation service. Our GPhC-registered clinicians can give advice on how to manage your pain, and discuss whether your knee may require further investigation, or whether you should see a physiotherapist. You can book an appointment between 9.30am and 4.30pm, five days a week.

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020

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