Knee pain is a fact of life, especially if you are over the age of 50. Minor injuries that occur when people are in their 20s or 30s can develop into painful osteoarthritic conditions that cause chronic discomfort, swelling and problems with mobility when they are in their 60s and 70s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fully half of the population over the age of 85 experience knee pain. A variety of problems can affect the knee, and treatments vary from over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications to surgery to repair damaged tissue or even replacement of the entire knee joint.
Anatomy of the Knee
The knee joint consists of four components: bones, ligaments, tendons and cartilage. It is the largest joint of the body and is created when the thigh bone connects to the shin bone, joined with the patella, or kneecap. Ligaments and tendons help to hold the three parts of the joint in place. Cartilage is connective tissue that allows the bones to move together smoothly to perform complex movements. A number of problems can affect any one or all of these parts and can lead to chronic knee pain.
Common Problems of the Knee
The knee joint is subject to a number of different conditions that can cause pain, swelling and problems with mobility. These injuries fall into a number of categories:
- Fractures - The bones of the knee joint may become injured from severe impacts or crushing accidents, such as in auto crashes.
- Dislocation - A dislocation of the knee can occur from a high-velocity impact, such as a sports injury.
- Anterior cruciate ligament injury (ACL) - Injuries to a knee ligament often occur during sports activities or from a hard landing.
- Posterior cruciate ligament injury - These injuries back of knee pain caused by a sharp blow to the front of the knee.
- Meniscus tears - These injuries occur due to twisting or pivoting movements or when being tackled.
- Tendon tears - These injures generally occur in older people, when engaging in sports activities or from awkward landing from a jump or blow to the knee.
- Degenerative conditions of the knee - Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis can cause ongoing inflammation that deteriorates the cartilage and bone tissue.
- Tumors or cancer
Diagnosing Knee Problems
Finding the cause of knee pain requires diagnostic tests. The physician may do a comprehensive physical examination with lab tests to determine if there are any underlying health problems that are contributing to the pain. He or she may also order x-rays to determine the condition of the bones in the joint. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) testing can reveal problems with soft tissue within the knee joint. If indicated, the physician may also want to do a laparoscopic procedure to visually inspect the tissue in the knee joint to see if it can be repaired.
Medical Treatment For Knee Pain
If home care does not improve knee pain, you should consult with an orthopedic specialist who has experience in treating common knee problems. Orthopedics is a specialty that deals with conditions of the bones, joints and spine. These physicians receive additional training in the unique problems of these areas of the body. They can determine the precise problem from diagnostic tests and recommend a variety of treatment options. A few of the recommended treatments for knee pain include:
- Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, which can reduce pain and inflammation in the knee joint
- Ice packs, heat bracing to reduce swelling
- Various types of braces to provide support
- Physical therapy to strengthen the muscles that support the knee
- Prescription medications that manage pain and reduce inflammation
- Steroid drugs, administered by injection, to reduce inflammation
- Hyaluronic acid injections to replace damaged cartilage within the joint
- Laparoscopic surgery, done through small incisions in the knee, to remove damaged tissue and repair injuries
- Knee replacement surgery, in which the joint is replaced, either partially or totally, with artificial materials, followed by intensive physical therapy to restore normal joint function
Managing Your Knee Pain
Individuals with knee pain can do a number of things to manage discomfort and improve knee function. Staying active is one of the most important ways to maintain joint health and lower the risk for debilitating joint diseases. Minor pain can be managed with over-the-counter medications, or the R.I.C.E treatment, which stands for rest, icing, compression and elevation. Physical therapy sessions can pinpoint specific problems and improve the function of individual muscle groups to improve function. If pain persists over a period of time or if the ability to maintain normal function is affected, consult with a medical specialist to determine appropriate treatment.
Prevention of Knee Problems
The best way to stop knee pain is to take care of your joints throughout your life. You can do this in a number of ways:
- Always begin your exercise sessions with a warm-up period to prepare muscles and joints for vigorous activity. Whatever your choice of activity, preparing your body with stretching exercises can help to reduce the risk for injury.
- When minor injuries occur, ensure that you get medical treatment. Many cases of degenerative osteoarthritis begin with a minor injury that is neglected and which worsens as the years pass. Prompt medical care can help to minimize the damage and prevent the later deterioration that can cause severe pain and problems with mobility.
- Another important action you can take to protect your knee joints is to remain active throughout your life. Sedentary lifestyles can weaken muscles and leave individuals vulnerable to joint problems. Maintaining an active lifestyle with sports, outdoor activities, gym workouts or other types of activities can help you to stay physically active well into your older years. And the more you weigh, the more stress is your knees are put under. So losing weight is another key prevention metric.
The knee joint must bear a significant portion of the weight of the individual and is constantly under stress from normal wear and tear. Protecting your joint when you are young can help to avoid many of the degenerative joint problems that occur in later years.