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Knee pain: common causes and treatments

Doctor applying pain relief to patients knee
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Experiencing pain in your knee is pretty common and not always something that needs medical attention – although in cases where pain is very severe or persists for several weeks, a visit to the GP is recommended. If you’re currently having knee pain, read on to find out what might be the cause, how to treat the pain, and when to get medical help.

Causes of knee pain

The causes of knee pain tend to fall into two broad categories:

  • Injuries and overuse
  • Medical conditions

While it can be helpful to have an idea of what has caused your knee pain, it’s important not to self-diagnose. If the pain doesn’t go away or is very bad, speak to a doctor about your symptoms to get their professional opinion.

Common knee injuries

Overstretching, twisting, repetitive running and jumping, and direct injuries can all cause pain in the knee. Below are some common causes of knee pain related to injury.

Sprains and strains of the muscles or ligaments can cause pain, tenderness and weakness, as well as swelling and bruising. You probably won’t be able to put weight on your knee.

Tendonitis is an inflammation of the tendon. It can cause pain between the kneecap and shin, which gets worse when you move. Moving your knee might be difficult, and you might feel a grating or crackling sensation when you do.

A torn ligament or tendon or damaged cartilage may make a popping sound as the injury occurs. You’ll probably struggle to stand or straighten the knee joint.

A dislocated kneecap will usually be very noticeable as the kneecap will change shape or direction. You might feel a pop, followed by severe pain and swelling in the knee. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to straighten your knee or walk.

A broken kneecap is also a noticeable injury that causes severe pain, swelling and deformity e.g. a change to the appearance of the bone. You might hear a snap or a grinding noise, feel pain whenever you try to put weight on your knee and move it, and feel faint or dizzy.

Medical conditions that cause knee pain

Not all knee pain is directly caused by an injury or overuse. There are several medical conditions which can cause swelling and pain in the knee joint, including the following.

Osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis, tends to affect older people, and may cause pain, stiffness and swelling in both knees. Joint pain from osteoarthritis also tends to worsen the more you use your joints.

Bursitis is a condition causing pain and inflammation around a joint. If you have this in your knee, you might notice redness and heat, as well as a dull, aching pain. Your knee will be sensitive and will hurt if you move it.

Gout causes very sudden and severe pain, and normally makes the skin over the joint hot, red and swollen.

Osgood-Schlatter’s disease is a condition that causes a painful, bony lump to develop on the shin just below the knee. It usually occurs in children and teenagers, and is associated with growth spurts, although it can be brought on by specific types of exercise like football, basketball and ballet.

Septic arthritis is a serious joint infection that can affect the knee, causing severe pain, swelling and skin discolouration. You might also feel feverish and generally unwell. If you’re having these symptoms, ask for an urgent GP appointment or call 111.

When to see a doctor for knee pain

Usually, pain in the knee won’t be a sign of anything serious. However, it might require medical attention if the pain is very severe, doesn’t get better, or is accompanied by other symptoms.

The NHS recommends seeing a GP if:

  • Your knee pain doesn’t get better after several weeks
  • Your knee locks or gives way, or is clicking painfully

You should seek more urgent help – usually by calling 111 – if your knee:

  • Is very painful
  • Is very swollen or has changed shape
  • Is too sore, stiff or weak for you to move it or put any weight on it
  • Is hot or red – especially if you are also feeling feverish, with a high temperature

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How to treat knee pain

There are a few different approaches for dealing with knee pain. However, it’s usually just a case of resting at home until it begins to feel better. While waiting for your knee to heal, do the following:

  • Avoid putting weight on your knee for long periods
  • Ice your knee with an ice pack or frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel – you can do this for up to 20 minutes every two to three hours
  • Take pain relief

If you suspect you have a sprain or a strain it can also help to elevate your knee, wrap it in a bandage, and avoid heat packs or hot baths for a few days.

Best painkillers for knee pain

For most types of knee pain, the NHS recommends paracetamol tablets. You may also take ibuprofen, or use a topical gel or mousse containing ibuprofen to bring down the swelling. Heat and cold therapy can also help with pain and reduce inflammation. Your local pharmacist should be able to assess your symptoms and advise you on what would be most suitable for you.

Treatments from a doctor

Medical treatment for knee pain will depend on the cause, and the severity of your condition, but might involve:

  • Painkillers
  • Antibiotics
  • Steroid injections
  • Physiotherapy
  • Surgery