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.
A blog by Amy Mathews Amos- See below
My symptoms started in January 2008, with deep pain in my bladder and the sense that I had to urinate constantly. I was given a diagnosis of interstitial cystitis, a chronic bladder condition with no known cure. But in the following months, pain spread to my thighs, knees, hips, buttocks, abdomen and back. By the time my condition was properly diagnosed three years later, I had seen two urogynecologists, three orthopedists, six physical therapists, two manual therapists, a rheumatologist, a neurologist, a chiropractor and a homeopath.
What was wrong? Something completely unexpected, given my symptoms: myofascial pain syndrome, a condition caused by muscle fibers that contract but don’t release. That constant contraction creates knots of taut muscle, or trigger points, that send pain throughout the body, even to parts that are perfectly healthy. Most doctors have never heard of myofascial pain syndrome and few know how to treat it.
In my case, trigger points in my pelvic floor — the bowl of muscle on the bottom of the pelvis — referred pain to my bladder. Points along my thighs pulled on my knee joints, creating sharp pain when I walked. Points in my hips, buttocks and abdomen threw my pelvis and lower spine out of alignment, pushing even more pain up my back. The pain was so severe at times that I could sit for only brief periods.
“Why didn’t anybody know this?” I asked my doctor, Timothy Taylor, soon after he correctly diagnosed the reason for my pain. “Because doctors don’t specialize in muscles,” he said. “It’s the forgotten organ.”
‘There’s no wire’
Most medical schools and physical therapy programs lack instruction in myofascial pain, in part because it involves referred pain, according to Robert Gerwin, an associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University. Gerwin, who is also president of Pain and Rehabilitation Medicine in Bethesda, says that medicine has only recently come to understand this type of pain.
“I remember a long conversation with a neurosurgeon saying that [referred] pain is impossible because there’s no connection, there’s no wire, no string, no blood vessel, there’s no nerve, there’s no nothing connecting these two places,” Gerwin said. Of course, the surgeon was “not realizing that the mechanism of spread is through the spinal cord.”
Pain signals from taut muscle fibers travel to specific locations on the spinal cord that also receive signals from other parts of the body. Referred pain occurs when pain signals from muscles register in the nervous system as if they came from elsewhere.
Although physicians increasingly recognize referred pain today, diagnosis and treatment of myofascial pain often takes more time than most physicians can provide, according to Taylor. Practitioners need specific training to recognize trigger points. And they must examine and palpate patients carefully to identify and locate these taut bands of muscle fiber.
In a 2000 survey, more than 88 percent of pain specialists agreed that myofascial pain syndrome was a legitimate diagnosis, but they differed over the criteria for diagnosing it.
Norman Harden, the medical director of the Center for Pain Studies at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, conducted that survey. He believes that practitioners need clear, validated criteria for diagnosing myofascial pain and identifying effective treatments. He recently conducted another survey to determine if the level of recognition among pain specialists has changed. Preliminary results suggest it has not.
According to Gerwin, myofascial trigger points often cause or contribute to problems such as chronic back pain, headaches and pelvic pain. Trigger points can form anywhere in the body after an injury or if muscles brace against pain or trauma for a long period. They also can result from chronic overuse of muscles due to stress or to poor posture that puts constant pressure on muscles not designed to withstand it.
Taylor understands this as both a physician and a patient. His myofascial pain started in 2003 during his daily run. “I felt a sharp pain in my rear that felt just like when my brothers used to shoot me with our BB gun,” he recalled. He checked himself for signs of injury but found none, then limped home, assuming it was a strained muscle that would heal after a few days. It didn’t.
He sought treatment first from his general practitioner. He then went to a battery of specialists: neurologists, rheumatologists, orthopedic surgeons, osteopathic physicians, physical medicine and rehabilitation specialists, and physical therapists.
Found it on the Internet
After three years, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist told him the source of his pain was his piriformis muscle, a pear-shaped muscle that runs diagonally across the buttocks. The doctor prescribed stretching and strengthening exercises to resolve it, but they only made things worse. Eventually, the pain reached down to Taylor’s knees, up to his head and out to his fingers on both sides of his body.
But he finally had a useful piece of information. He did an Internet search for “piriformis muscle” — a common spot for trigger points — and “myofascial pain syndrome” popped up. “I had been to the bone doctor and the joint doctor and the nerve doctor and the rehab doctor, and none of them had really examined my muscles in great detail,” he said. And none of them identified trigger points. Taylor has since changed his focus from radiology to working toward understanding, diagnosing and treating the condition. When I met him in 2011 he had established a practice that specializes in pain syndromes.
A popular treatment is dry needling, which sounds like exactly what it is: Tiny needles are inserted into the skin to stimulate a twitch response in the heart of a trigger point, releasing it. Although similar to acupuncture, dry needling focuses directly on trigger points rather than on the meridians, or energy fields, recognized by Chinese medicine. Usually, each trigger point requires several treatments before it relaxes substantially. Between sessions, patients treat themselves each day by pressing the points against a hard surface with simple tools such as tennis balls and holding for a minute or two. Treatment also addresses posture-related strains on muscles and metabolic factors such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies, low thyroid and hormonal imbalances that can contribute to trigger points.
Though a few studies have been done, they have not adequately demonstrated the effectiveness of treatments for trigger points, according to a 2009 review published in the European Journal of Pain. Researchers at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth and the British Medical Acupuncture Society reported that only one of the seven studies they reviewed found dry needling to be effective in reducing pain. Four other studies found no difference between dry needling and placebo treatment, and the two remaining studies had contradictory results.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists recognizes dry needling as a legitimate treatment. The group maintains that research shows that dry needling reduces pain and muscle tension and helps muscles with trigger points return to normal. Other studies are underway. Jay Shah of the National Institutes of Health and Lynn Gerber and Siddartha Sikdar of George Mason University are using ultrasound imaging to examine how dry needling changes the physiology of trigger points after treatment.
Gerwin says that proper training in finding the trigger points can lead to consistency in diagnosing them. He and physical therapist Jan Dommerholt of Bethesda Physiocare run Myopain Seminars, which help physicians and physical therapists learn how to diagnose and treat trigger points.
According to Harden at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, without clearer diagnostic criteria accessible to general practitioners, experiences like mine will continue. “As awareness grows and doctors feel empowered to understand and make this diagnosis, then that endless and frustrating round of trying to find what I’ve got and what the answer is will stop,” he said.
Gerwin agrees that more research will help, but already he sees greater acceptance of trigger points in the medical community.
“I think the bottom line is simply that the
underlying pain physiology is understood now to explain why referred pain occurs, to understand why tenderness occurs,” he said. “And that explains a lot of what muscle pain is all about.”
In my case, through a combination of therapies, including dry needling, compression, stretching, postural changes and relaxation techniques, I feel much better. I no longer need dry needling, but I do need to practice the other techniques myself, regularly, to prevent trigger points from reforming or to release them myself when they do form.
Amy Mathews Amos, a science writer in Shepherdstown, W.V., blogs at amymathewsamos.com.
A Physiotherapist’s Guide to Osteoarthritis
“Arthritis” is a term used to describe inflammation of the joints. Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis and usually is caused by the deterioration of a joint. Typically, the weight-bearing joints are affected, with the knee and the hip being the most common.
An estimated 27 million Americans have some form of OA. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 2 people in the United States may develop knee OA by age 85, and 1 in 4 may develop hip OA in their lifetime. Until age 50, men and women are equally affected by OA; after age 50, women are affected more than men. Over their lifetimes, 21% of overweight and 31% of obese adults are diagnosed with arthritis.
OA affects daily activity and is the most common cause of disability in the US adult population. Although OA does not always require surgery, such as a joint replacement, it has been estimated that the use of total joint replacement in the United States will increase 174% for hips and 673% for knees by 2030.
Physical therapists can help patients understand OA and its complications, and provide treatments to lessen pain and improve movement. Additionally, physical therapists can provide information about healthy lifestyle choices and obesity education. This is important because some research shows that weight loss can reduce the chance of getting OA. One study showed that an 11-pound weight loss reduced the risk of OA in women.
What is Osteoarthritis?
Your bones are connected at joints such as the hip and knee. A rubbery substance called cartilage coats the bones at these joints and helps reduce friction when you move. A protective oily substance called synovial fluid is also contained within the joint, helping to ease movement. When these protective coverings break down, the bones begin to rub together during movement. This can cause pain, and the process itself can lead to more damage in the remaining cartilage and the bones themselves.
The cause of OA is unknown. Current research points to aging as the main cause. Factors that may increase your risk for OA include:
•Age. Growing older increases your risk for developing OA because of the amount of time you’ve used your joints.
•Genetics. Research indicates that some people’s bodies have difficulty forming cartilage. Individuals can pass this problem on to their children.
•Past Injury. Individuals with prior injury to a specific joint, especially a weight-bearing joint (such as the hip or knee), are at increased risk for developing OA.
•Occupation. Jobs that require repetitive squatting, bending, and twisting are risk factors for OA. People who perform jobs that require prolonged kneeling (miners, flooring specialists) are at high risk for developing OA.
•Sports. Athletes who repeatedly use a specific joint in extreme ways (pitchers, football linemen, ballet dancers) may increase their risk for developing OA later in life.
•Obesity. Being overweight causes increased stress to the weight-bearing joints (such as knees), increasing the risk for development of OA.
How Does it Feel?
Typically, OA causes pain and stiffness in the joint. Common symptoms include:
•Stiffness in the joint, especially in the morning, which eases in less than 30 minutes
•Stiffness in the joint after sitting or lying down for long periods
•Pain during activity that is relieved by rest
•Cracking, creaking, crunching, or other types of joint noise
•Pain when you press on the joint
•Increased bone growth around the joint that you may be able to feel
Caution: Swelling and warmth around the joint is not usually seen with OA and may indicate a different condition or signs of an inflammation. Please consult with your doctor if you have swelling, redness, and warmth in the joint.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Osteoarthritis is typically diagnosed by your doctor using an x-ray, but there are signs that may lead your physical therapist to suspect you have OA. Joint stiffness, difficulty moving, joint creaking or cracking, and pain that is relieved with rest are typical symptoms.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
Your physical therapist can effectively treat OA. Depending on how severe the OA is, physical therapy may help you avoid surgery. Although the symptoms and progression of OA are different for each person, starting an individualized exercise program and addressing risk factors can help relieve your symptoms and slow the condition’s advance. Here are a few ways your physical therapist can help:
•Your therapist will do a thorough examination to determine your symptoms and what activities are difficult for you. He or she will design an exercise program to address those activities and improve your movement.
•Your therapist may use manual (hands-on) therapy to improve movement of the affected joint.
•Your physical therapist may offer suggestions for adjusting your work area to lessen the strain on your joints.
•Your physical therapist can teach you an aerobic exercise program to improve your movement and overall health, and offer instructions for continuing the program at home.
•If you are overweight, your physical therapist can teach you an exercise program for safe weight loss, and recommend simple lifestyle changes that will help keep the weight off.
In cases of severe OA that are not helped by physical therapy alone, surgery, such as a knee or hip replacement, may be necessary. Your physical therapist will refer you to an orthopedic surgeon to discuss the possibility of surgery.
Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?
The best way to prevent or slow the onset of OA is to choose a healthy lifestyle, avoid obesity, and participate in regular exercise.
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.
The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of hip osteoarthritis and hip replacement. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free full text, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of doctor-diagnosed arthritis and arthritis-attributable activity limitation: United States, 2007-2009. Published October 8, 2010. Accessed March 11, 2013. Free Article.
Murphy LB, Helmick CG, Schwartz TA, et al. One in four people may develop symptomatic hip osteoarthritis in his or her lifetime. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2010;18:1372–1379. Free Article.
Cibulka MT, White DM, Woehrle J, et al. Hip pain and mobility deficits—hip osteoarthritis: clinical practice guidelines linked to the international classification of functioning, disability, and health from the Orthopaedic Section of the American Physical Therapy Association. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2009;39:A1–A25. Free Article.
Murphy L, Schwartz TA, Helmick CG, et al. Lifetime risk of symptomatic knee osteoarthritis. Arthritis Rheum. 2008;59:1207–1213. Free Article.
Kurtz S, Ong K, Lau E, et al. Projections of primary and revision hip and knee arthroplasty in the United States from 2005 to 2030. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2007;89:780–785. Article Summary in PubMed.
Deyle GD, Allison SC, Matekel RL, et al. Physical therapy treatment effectiveness for osteoarthritis of the knee: a randomized comparison of supervised clinical exercise and manual therapy procedures versus a home exercise program. Phys Ther. 2005;85:1301–1317. Free Article.
Authored by Christopher Bise, PT, MS, DPT. Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.
The Role of Physical Therapy
Physical therapy with a trained professional may be useful if pain has not improved after 3 – 4 weeks. It is important for any person who has chronic low back pain to have an exercise program. Professionals who understand the limitations and special needs of back pain, and can address individual health conditions, should guide this program. One study indicated that patients who planned their own exercise program did worse than those in physical therapy or doctor-directed programs.
Physical therapy typically includes the following:
Education and training the patient in correct movement.
Exercises to help the patient keep the spine in neutral positions during all daily activities.
Incorrect movements or long-term high-impact exercise is often a cause of back pain in the first place. People vulnerable to back pain should avoid activities that put undue stress on the lower back or require sudden twisting movements, such as football, golf, ballet, and weight lifting.
Exercises performed after a simple diskectomy do not seem to provide much added benefit over time.
Specific and regular exercise under the guidance of a trained professional is important for reducing pain and improving function, although patients often find it difficult to maintain therapy.
Exercise and Acute or Subacute Back Pain
Exercise does not help acute back pain. In fact, overexertion may cause further harm. Beginning after 4 – 8 weeks of pain, however, a rehabilitation program may benefit the patient.
An incremental aerobic exercise program (such as walking, stationary biking, and swimming) may begin within 2 weeks of symptoms. Jogging is usually not recommended, at least not until the pain is gone and muscles are stronger.
Patients should avoid exercises that put the lower back under pressure until the back muscles are well toned. Such exercises include leg lifts done in a facedown position, straight leg sit-ups, and leg curls using exercise equipment.
In all cases, patients should never force themselves to exercise if, by doing so, the pain increases.
Exercise and Chronic Back Pain
Exercise plays a very beneficial role in chronic back pain. Repetition is the key to increasing flexibility, building endurance, and strengthening the specific muscles needed to support and neutralize the spine. Exercise should be considered as part of a broader program to return to normal home, work, and social activities. In this way, the positive benefits of exercise not only affect strength and flexibility but also alter and improve patients’ attitudes toward their disability and pain. Exercise may also be effective when combined with a psychological and motivational program, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.
There are different types of back pain exercises. Stretching exercises work best for reducing pain, while strengthening exercises are best for improving function.
Exercises for back pain include:
Low Impact Aerobic Exercises. Low-impact aerobic exercises, such as swimming, bicycling, and walking can strengthen muscles in the abdomen and back without over-straining the back. Programs that use strengthening exercises while swimming may be a particularly beneficial approach for many patients with back pain. Medical research has shown that pregnant women who engaged in a water gymnastics program have less back pain and are able to continue working longer.
Spine Stabilization and Strength Training. Exercises called lumbar extension strength training are proving to be effective. Generally, these exercises attempt to strengthen the abdomen, improve lower back mobility, strength, and endurance, and enhance flexibility in the hip, the hamstring muscles, and the tendons at the back of the thigh.
Yoga, Tai Chi, Chi Kung. Practices originating in Asia that combine low-impact physical movements and meditation may be very helpful. They are designed to achieve a physical and mental balance and can be very helpful in preventing recurrences of low back pain.
Flexibility Exercises. Flexibility exercises may help reduce pain. A stretching program may work best when combined with strengthening exercises.
Specific Exercises for Low Back Strength
Perform the following exercises at least three times a week:
Partial Sit-ups. Partial sit-ups or crunches strengthen the abdominal muscles.
Keep the knees bent and the lower back flat on the floor while raising the shoulders up 3 – 6 inches.
Exhale on the way up, and inhale on the way down.
Perform this exercise slowly 8 – 10 times with the arms across the chest.
Pelvic Tilt. The pelvic tilt alleviates tight or fatigued lower back muscles.
Lie on the back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
Tighten the buttocks and abdomen so that they tip up slightly.
Press the lower back to the floor, hold for one second, and then relax.
Be sure to breathe evenly.
Over time increase this exercise until it is held for 5 seconds. Then, extend the legs a little more so that the feet are further away from the body and try it again.
Stretching Lower-Back Muscles. The following are three exercises for stretching the lower back:
Lie on the back with knees bent and legs together. Keeping arms at the sides, slowly roll the knees over to one side until totally relaxed. Hold this position for about 20 seconds (while breathing evenly) and then repeat on the other side.
Lying on the back, hold one knee and pull it gently toward the chest. Hold for 20 seconds. Repeat with the other knee.
While supported on hands and knees, lift and straighten right hand and left leg at the same time. Hold for 3 seconds while tightening the abdominal muscles. The back should be straight. Alternate with the other arm and leg and repeat on each side 8 – 20 times.
Note: No one with low back pain should perform exercises that require bending over right after getting up in the morning. At that time, the disks are more fluid-filled and more vulnerable to pressure from this movement.