Physical Therapist’s Guide to Knee Pain
Knee pain can be caused by disease or injury. The most common disease affecting the knee is osteoarthritis. 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 caused by an injury is most often associated with knee cartilage tears, such as meniscal tears, or ligament tears, such as anterior cruciate ligament tears.
What is Knee Pain?
Knee pain can be caused by disease or injury. Knee pain can restrict movement, affect muscle control in the sore leg, and reduce the strength and endurance of the muscles that support the knee.
The most common disease affecting the knee is osteoarthritis, which is caused by the cartilage in the knee gradually wearing away, resulting in pain and swelling.
Knee injuries can occur as the result of a direct blow or sudden movement that strains the knee beyond its normal range of motion, as can happen in sports, recreational activities, a fall, or a motor vehicle accident. Knee pain caused by an injury often is associated with tears in the knee cartilage or ligaments. Knee pain also can be the result of repeated stress, as often occurs with the kneecap, also known as patellofemoral pain syndrome. Very rarely, with extreme trauma, a bone may break at the knee.
How Does it Feel?
You may feel knee pain in different parts of your knee joint, depending on the problem affecting you. Identifying the location of your pain can help your physical therapist determine its cause.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Your physical therapist will make a diagnosis based on your symptoms, medical history, and a thorough examination. X-ray and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) results may also be used to complete the diagnosis.
To help diagnose your condition, your physical therapist may ask you questions like these:
•Where exactly on your knee is the pain?
•Did you twist your knee?
•Did you feel a “tearing” sensation at the time of injury?
•Do you notice swelling?
•Have you ever felt like your knee joint is “catching,” or “locking,” or will give way?
•Do you have difficulty walking up and down stairs?
•Do you have difficulty sitting with your knee bent for long periods, as on an airplane or at the movies?
•Does your pain increase when you straighten or bend your knee?
•Does your knee hurt if you have to twist or turn quickly?
The physical therapist will perform tests to find out whether you have:
•Pain or discomfort with bending or straightening your knee
•Tenderness at the knee joint
•Limited motion in your knee
•Weakness in the muscles around your knee
•Difficulty putting weight on your knee when standing or walking
The physical therapist also is concerned about how well you are able to use your injured knee in daily life. To assess this, the therapist may use such tests as a single-limb hop test, a 6-minute walk test, or a timed up and go test.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
Based on the evaluation, your physical therapist will develop a customized rehabilitation program, including a specific set of knee exercises, for you.
If you already have knee problems, your physical therapist can help with a plan of exercise that will strengthen your knee without increasing the risk of injury or further damage. As a general rule, you should choose gentle exercises such as swimming, aquatic exercise, or walking rather than jarring exercises such as jogging or high-impact aerobics.
Consult your physical therapist about specific ways to maintain your knee health following injury or surgery. Your physical therapist has the relevant educational background and expertise to evaluate your knee health and to refer you to another health care provider if necessary.
Depending on the severity of your knee problem, your age, and your lifestyle, the therapist may select such treatments as:
Strength training and functional exercises, which are designed to increase strength, endurance, and function of your leg muscles (quadriceps and hamstrings). This in turn helps support the knee and reduce stress to the knee joint.
Your physical therapist can determine just how much you may need to limit physical activity involving the affected knee. He or she also can gauge your knee’s progress in function during your rehabilitation.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help Before & After Surgery?
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.
Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?
Ideally, everyone should regularly get 3 types of exercise to prevent injury to all parts of the body, including the knees:
•Range-of-motion exercises to help maintain normal joint movement and relieve stiffness.
•Strengthening exercises to keep or increase muscle strength.
•Aerobic or endurance exercises (such as walking or swimming) to improve function of the heart and circulation and to help control weight. Weight control can be important to people who have arthritis because extra weight puts pressure on many joints, including the knee.
To keep knee pain and other musculoskeletal pain at bay, it’s important to maintain an overall healthy lifestyle, exercise, get adequate rest, and eat healthy foods. It’s also important for runners and other athletes to perform physical therapist-approved stretching and warm-up exercises on a daily basis—especially before beginning physical activity.
Real Life Experiences
At age 56, Monica was in very good health—eating right, maintaining her weight, and exercising daily at home. One day she fell off her exercise equipment and twisted her knee. The pain was excruciating. Even though she could walk short distances, using her sore leg during her daily activities soon became impossible. Monica made an appointment with her physical therapist. The therapist reviewed her medical history, conducted a thorough examination, and consulted with Monica’s physician regarding the need for a series of X-rays to ensure no bones were broken in the fall.
Consultation with an orthopedic surgeon confirmed that there were no broken bones and no need for surgery. Monica’s physical therapist developed a program of strength training and functional exercises to increase her hip, knee, and ankle muscle strength and endurance. The physical therapist also recommended electrical stimulation of the knee to increase her quadriceps (thigh) muscle strength.
By following the physical therapist’s regimen, Monica decreased her knee pain, and her mobility improved dramatically. Regular ongoing strength-training knee exercises—and more careful use of her exercise equipment—have helped Monica remain free of knee pain.
What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?
Although all physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat people with knee pain, you may want to consider:
•A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with orthopedic, or musculoskeletal, problems
•A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who has completed a residency or fellowship FCAMPT in orthopedic physical therapy, giving the therapist advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition
General tips when you’re looking for a physiotherapist:
•Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.
•When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapist’s experience in helping people with TKR.
During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse.
At first it was just a niggle in your knee when you climbed stairs or were squatting. Then the pain and stiffness became more than a niggle and you began to feel it when walking, sitting and resting.
You may be hearing popping or cracking sounds in your knee, and notice that your knee “gives out” every now and again.
The knee is an amazing but complicated joint and knee pain is one of the most common reasons that people visit a physiotherapist.
Pain behind the kneecap is commonly called runner’s knee because it is often seen in athletes and people with an active lifestyle, although it can also be seen in everyone from the young adolescents during growth spurts to elderly people.
The medical term is patellofemoral pain syndrome. It is pain behind the kneecap where your patella (kneecap) slides along the groove in your femur (thighbone) beneath.
Pain and stiffness occurs when the kneecap does not slide smoothly and misaligns causing it to rub against your femur. Repeated mis-tracking causes pain, stiffness, and ultimately can cause damage to your kneecap joint surface.
Knee pain is most commonly noticed during activities that involve knee bending, jarring or weight bearing.
People most at risk are those whose sport or activity includes running, jumping or the need to land in a squatting position. Sports most commonly associated with knee pain include running, netball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, skiing and cycling. Many tradies such as tilers and carpet layers also have problems.
Causes of Runner’s Knee
Overuse – increased activity or increased duration and intensity of the activity
Changes in footwear or playing surfaces
Tight outer thigh muscles and weaker inner thigh muscles causing the kneecap to be pulled to one side
A twisting injury
Flat feet and lack of arch support
Weak hip control muscles
First aid for Runner’s Knee
Generally, knee pain is gradual onset, which means it gradually increases in severity over time.
As with most injuries, the best initial first aid is rest, ice packs (15 minutes at a time every 2-3 hours), and taking anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen.
You do not need a referral from a doctor to see a physiotherapist. If the pain is moderate, then you can seek treatment with your Physiotherapist immediately.
Physiotherapy is a proven treatment for runner’s knee. Your physiotherapist may initially tape or strap your kneecap to help pull it back into alignment and reduce pain.
Massage and joint mobilisation techniques are also commonly used to reduce swelling and restore movement.
You will be prescribed exercises to stretch and strengthen muscles that may be contributing to the problem. These exercises will change as you heal and will gradually increase in intensity to match your recovery.
If you wish to continue exercising to maintain your fitness during your treatment, then explore swimming, deep-water running and low-impact gym equipment such as elliptical trainers.
Depending on your knee pain cause, you may also be advised to explore arch supports, orthotics or different footwear. You may also require postural or technique correction in your chosen sport to stop problems from recurring, as well as a strength and conditioning plan to get you back to full competitive fitness.
In our experience, over 90% of runner’s knee physiotherapy clients will be pain free within six weeks of starting treatment. However, for severely damaged joints or arthritic joints, surgery may be required.
Things to Remember
Runner’s knee or patellofemoral pain syndrome is a common cause of knee pain.
It is a gradual onset injury and is most commonly noticed during activities that involve knee bending, jarring or weight bearing.
Physiotherapy is a proven method to speed healing, and prevent recurrence of knee pain.
Future management may also involve assessment of your gait and posture during exercise, and prescription of arch support or custom made orthotics.
Wearing a knee brace has been shown to “significantly improve the pain and symptoms” of a type of osteoarthritis affecting the kneecap, according to a new study.
Arthritis Research UK-funded researchers at The University of Manchester claim their findings, presented at the Osteoarthritis Research Society International meeting in Philadelphia have enormous potential for treating this common joint condition effectively — as well as providing a simple and cheap alternative to painkillers.
Osteoarthritis of the knee affects around six million people in the UK and is increasing as the population ages and becomes more obese. Current treatments are limited to pain relief and joint replacement.
Osteoarthritis of the knee affecting the kneecap (patellofemoral osteoarthritis) accounts for about 20% of patients with knee pain. They typically experience pain that is made worse by going up and down stairs, kneeling, squatting and prolonged sitting.
“There’s a pressing need for non-surgical interventions for knee osteoarthritis, and little attention has been paid to treatments particularly aimed at the kneecap (the patellofemoral joint), a major source of knee pain,” explained Dr Michael Callaghan, research associate in rehabilitation science at the University of Manchester.
“We’ve shown that something as simple as a lightweight knee brace can dramatically improve the symptoms and function for people with this particular type of knee osteoarthritis.”
The research team conducted a randomised controlled trial of a lightweight lycra flexible knee brace fitted around the knee with a support strap for the kneecap. One hundred and 26 patients between the ages of 40 and 70 were treated over a 12-week period. All had suffered from arthritic knee pain for the previous three months.
They were randomly allocated to either immediate brace treatment or delayed treatment (i.e. after six weeks.) Both groups of patients eventually wore the brace for a period of 12 weeks and averaged roughly seven hours a day.
After six weeks of brace wearing there were significant improvements between the brace wearing group and the no treatment group in scores for pain, symptoms, knee stiffness, muscle strength and function. After 12 weeks there were significant improvements in these scores for all patients compared to when they started.
“Patients repeatedly told us that wearing the brace made their knee feel more secure, stable, and supported,” Dr Callaghan added. “Our theory is that these sensations gave the patient confidence to move the knee more normally and this helped in improving muscle strength, knee function and symptoms.”
Professor Alan Silman, medical director of Arthritis Research UK, which funded the trial, said: “Osteoarthritis of the knee is a painful disorder that affects millions of people in the UK, causing pain and reducing activities. We know that in patients with arthritis, the knee joint is frequently out of normal alignment, which might be an underlying cause of the problem, as well as making it worse.
“By using a simple brace, the researchers have been able not only to correct the alignment but achieve a very worthwhile benefit in terms of reducing pain and function. This approach is a real advance over relying on pain killers and has the potential to reduce the end for joint surgery and replacement, procedures often employed when the symptoms become uncontrollable.”
The ROAM (Research into Osteoarthritis in Manchester) project has run three trials at The University of Manchester and the University of Salford.
Exercise therapy is as effective as surgery for middle aged patients with a common type of knee injury known as meniscal tear (damage to the rubbery discs that cushion the knee joint), finds a study in The BMJ this week.
The researchers suggest that supervised exercise therapy should be considered as a treatment option for middle aged patients with this type of knee damage.
Every year, an estimated two million people worldwide undergo knee arthroscopy (keyhole surgery to relieve pain and improve movement) at a cost of several billion US dollars. Yet current evidence suggests that arthroscopic knee surgery offers little benefit for most patients.
So researchers based in Denmark and Norway carried out a randomised controlled trial to compare exercise therapy alone with arthroscopic surgery alone in middle aged patients with degenerative meniscal tears.
A randomised controlled trial is one of the best ways for determining whether an intervention actually has the desired effect.
They identified 140 adults (average age 50 years) with degenerative meniscal tears, verified by MRI scan, at two public hospitals and two physiotherapy clinics in Norway. Almost all (96%) participants had no definitive x-ray evidence of osteoarthritis.
Half of the patients received a supervised exercise programme over 12 weeks (2-3 sessions each week) and half received arthroscopic surgery followed by simple daily exercises to perform at home.
Thigh muscle strength was assessed at three months and patient reported knee function was recorded at two years.
No clinically relevant difference was found between the two groups for outcomes such as pain, function in sport and recreation, and knee related quality of life. At three months, muscle strength had improved in the exercise group.
No serious adverse events occurred in either group during the two-year follow-up. Thirteen (19%) of participants in the exercise group crossed over to surgery during the follow-up period, with no additional benefit.
“Supervised exercise therapy showed positive effects over surgery in improving thigh muscle strength, at least in the short term,” say the authors. “Our results should encourage clinicians and middle aged patients with degenerative meniscal tear and no radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis to consider supervised structured exercise therapy as a treatment option.”
How did this situation — widespread practice without supporting evidence of even moderate quality — come about, ask two experts in a linked editorial? “Essentially, good evidence has been widely ignored,” say Teppo Järvinen at the University of Helsinki and Gordon Guyatt at McMaster University in Canada.
“In a world of increasing awareness of constrained resources and epidemic medical waste, what we should not do is allow the orthopaedic community, hospital administrators, healthcare providers, and funders to ignore the results of rigorous trials and continue widespread use of procedures for which there has never been compelling evidence,” they conclude.
1.Nina Jullum Kise, May Arna Risberg, Silje Stensrud, Jonas Ranstam, Lars Engebretsen, Ewa M Roos. Exercise therapy versus arthroscopic partial meniscectomy for degenerative meniscal tear in middle aged patients: randomised controlled trial with two year follow-up. BMJ, 2016; i3740 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.i3740