During the physical exam, your doctor is likely to:
- Inspect your knee for swelling, pain, tenderness, warmth and visible bruising
- Check to see how far you can move your lower leg in different directions
- Push on or pull the joint to evaluate the integrity of the structures in your knee
In some cases, your doctor might suggest tests such as:
- X-ray. Your doctor may first recommend having an X-ray, which can help detect bone fractures and degenerative joint disease.
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan. CT scanners combine X-rays taken from many different angles, to create cross-sectional images of the inside of your body. CT scans can help diagnose bone problems and subtle fractures. A special kind of CT scan can accurately identify gout even when the joint is not inflamed.
- Ultrasound. This technology uses sound waves to produce real-time images of the soft tissue structures within and around your knee. Your doctor may want to move your knee into different positions during the ultrasound to check for specific problems.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses radio waves and a powerful magnet to create 3D images of the inside of your knee. This test is particularly useful in revealing injuries to soft tissues such as ligaments, tendons, cartilage and muscles.
If your doctor suspects an infection or inflammation, you're likely to have blood tests and sometimes a procedure called arthrocentesis, in which a small amount of fluid is removed from within your knee joint with a needle and sent to a laboratory for analysis.
Treatments will vary, depending upon what exactly is causing your knee pain.
Your doctor may prescribe medications to help relieve pain and to treat underlying conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout.
Strengthening the muscles around your knee will make it more stable. Your doctor may recommend physical therapy or different types of strengthening exercises based on the specific condition that is causing your pain.
If you are physically active or practice a sport, you may need exercises to correct movement patterns that may be affecting your knees and to establish good technique during your sport or activity. Exercises to improve your flexibility and balance also are important.
Arch supports, sometimes with wedges on one side of the heel, can help to shift pressure away from the side of the knee most affected by osteoarthritis. In certain conditions, different types of braces may be used to help protect and support the knee joint.
In some cases, your doctor may suggest injecting medications or other substances directly into your joint. Examples include:
- Corticosteroids. Injections of a corticosteroid drug into your knee joint may help reduce the symptoms of an arthritis flare and provide pain relief that may last a few months. These injections aren't effective in all cases.
- Hyaluronic acid. A thick fluid, similar to the fluid that naturally lubricates joints, hyaluronic acid can be injected into your knee to improve mobility and ease pain. Although study results have been mixed about the effectiveness of this treatment, relief from one or a series of shots may last as long as six months.
- Platelet-rich plasma (PRP). PRP contains a concentration of many different growth factors that appear to reduce inflammation and promote healing. These types of injections tend to work better in people whose knee pain is caused by tendon tears, sprains or injury.
If you have an injury that may require surgery, it's usually not necessary to have the operation immediately. Before making any decision, consider the pros and cons of both nonsurgical rehabilitation and surgical reconstruction in relation to what's most important to you. If you choose to have surgery, your options may include:
- Arthroscopic surgery. Depending on your injury, your doctor may be able to examine and repair your joint damage using a fiber-optic camera and long, narrow tools inserted through just a few small incisions around your knee. Arthroscopy may be used to remove loose bodies from your knee joint, remove or repair damaged cartilage (especially if it is causing your knee to lock), and reconstruct torn ligaments.
- Partial knee replacement surgery. In this procedure, your surgeon replaces only the most damaged portion of your knee with parts made of metal and plastic. The surgery can usually be performed through small incisions, so you're likely to heal more quickly than you are with surgery to replace your entire knee.
- Total knee replacement. In this procedure, your surgeon cuts away damaged bone and cartilage from your thighbone, shinbone and kneecap, and replaces it with an artificial joint made of metal alloys, high-grade plastics and polymers.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Over-the-counter medications — such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) — may help ease knee pain. Some people find relief by rubbing the affected knee with creams containing a numbing agent, such as lidocaine, or capsaicin, the substance that makes chili peppers hot.
Self-care measures for an injured knee include:
- Rest. Take a break from your normal activities to reduce repetitive strain on your knee, give the injury time to heal and help prevent further damage. A day or two of rest may be all you need for a minor injury. More severe damage is likely to need a longer recovery time.
- Ice. Ice reduces both pain and inflammation. A bag of frozen peas works well because it covers your whole knee. You also can use an ice pack wrapped in a thin towel to protect your skin. Although ice therapy is generally safe and effective, don't use ice for longer than 20 minutes at a time because of the risk of damage to your nerves and skin.
- Heat. You may experience temporary pain relief by applying a heat pack or hot-water bottle to the painful area on your knee.
- Compression. This helps prevent fluid buildup in damaged tissues and maintains knee alignment and stability. Look for a compression bandage that's lightweight, breathable and self-adhesive. It should be tight enough to support your knee without interfering with circulation.
- Elevation. To help reduce swelling, try propping your injured leg on pillows or sitting in a recliner.
- Glucosamine and chondroitin. Study results have been mixed about the effectiveness of these supplements for relieving osteoarthritis pain.
- Acupuncture. Research suggests that acupuncture may help relieve knee pain caused by osteoarthritis. Acupuncture involves the placement of hair-thin needles into your skin at specific places on your body.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor. Depending upon the cause of your problem, he or she may refer you to a doctor specializing in joint diseases (rheumatologist), joint surgery (orthopedic surgeon) or sports medicine.
What you can do
Before your appointment, you may want to write a list of answers to the following questions:
- When did you begin experiencing symptoms?
- Did a specific injury make your knee start to hurt?
- Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
- How severe are your symptoms?
- What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
- What medications and supplements do you take regularly?
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor may ask some of the following questions:
- Do you exercise or play sports?
- Was the pain caused by an injury?
- Do you experience any swelling, instability or locking of the knee?
- Are you experiencing symptoms in other areas, or just in your knee?
- Have you ever had knee pain before? If so, do you know what the cause was?