How Do I Know if My Knee Pain Is Serious

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We all deal with small aches and pains throughout our life, particularly when we work on our feet or live a very active life. Like most people, you are likely to postpone that visit to the doctor to consult about any discomfort or pain, choosing instead to wait and see if the pain goes away. 

And while this is often the case, how can you know when knee pain is actually serious? We will take a look at a few warning signs to keep an eye on.

What Is Knee Pain?

There are many injuries or conditions that can result in or cause knee pain. However, if you have issues bearing weight, have intense, persistent pain, or deformities in the knee, you should seek medical attention as it can indicate a serious problem.

Your knee is the joint that allows your leg to straighten and bend. Most knee pain results from inflammation, injury, infection, or degeneration.

How Do I Know if My Knee Pain Is Serious

Here are the main things to look out for that will justify visiting a knee specialist or orthopedic surgeon.

Difficulty Walking

If your knee pain causes you to limp, hop, shuffle, or make you not want to walk at all, consult with a doctor. This level of pain intensity may indicate a degenerative condition or bone or joint injury.

Joint Deformity

Take a look at your knees when standing with them together. If the painful knee is misshapen compared to the healthy knee, there may be a patella injury, dislocated knee cap, or fracture.

Knee Instability

If your knee wobbles when you walk or if it feels like it could collapse when bearing weight on it, visit your medical professional. Typically, joint instability indicates ligament issues, which could become worse without treatment.

Can’t Bear Weight

When standing up, if you need to move off the painful knee to the other leg or can’t hold up your own weight when standing, seek aid as this symptom indicates various knee conditions, some of which can be very serious.

Long-Term Discomfort or Pain

If you take the wait-and-see approach to your knee pain but notice it hasn’t gone away within 21 days, you should see your healthcare provider. If you are an athlete, don’t wait longer than 48 hours.

Lessened Sensation

Most people associate knee issues with pain, but a lack of pain or sensation can indicate serious problems. If your knee or leg pain doesn’t increase when pressing on the knee, your knee pain may be caused by sciatica or other non-knee injuries.

Pain Affecting Daily Activities

Most healthcare professionals recommend scheduling an appointment if you notice any pain or symptoms that affect your regular daily activities. If your knee pain prevents you from driving or makes your commute frustrating, makes your afternoon run uncomfortable, or you can’t do your job properly, get the knee evaluated.

Swelling or Redness

Similar to joint deformity, any changes in size, shape, or color in the knee may indicate serious issues. If you see swelling or redness or the area feels warm or tender, seek help immediately as this could indicate an infection in the joint.

Pain Affecting Sleep

People who experience knee pain often have issues falling asleep or waking in the night due to knee pain. If your knee pain affects your sleep, this could be a sign of something serious.

Range of Motion Reduced 

With knee injuries, the swelling often occurs inside the joint, reducing the knee’s range of motion. This means you won’t be able to bend or straighten your leg as you usually would. If your range of motion is affected for over 24 hours, see your doctor.

Senior woman holding the knee with pain

Quick Check of Symptoms That Need Medical Attention

  • Swelling
  • Tenderness
  • Stiffness
  • Intense or sudden pain in the knee
  • Redness
  • Bruising
  • Instability
  • Difficulties standing and walking
  • Weakness
  • Popping sound when the injury occurred
  • Warmth
  • Catching, crunching, or clicking sound in the knee when walking
  • Can’t fully straighten or bend the knee

Signs of Serious Knee Issues

  • Large wound
  • Extreme, sharp, intense pain
  • Swelling
  • Deformities
  • Instability in the joint
  • Feeling or hearing a pop when an injury occurs
  • Can’t straighten the leg
  • Can’t bear weight on the leg
  • Knee buckles when walking

What Can Cause Knee Pain?

There are many causes of knee pain, but some of the most common causes include the following.

  • Squatting
  • Running
  • Overuse injury
  • Sitting too much
  • Climbing or descending stairs
  • Meniscus tear
  • Fluid buildup in the knee
  • Ligament tear
  • Arthritis (joint inflammation), including osteoarthritis
  • Irritation resulting from excessive pressure, overuse, or injury
  • Muscle strain
  • Gout (causes crystallization in the joints)
  • Infection in the knee joint
  • Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears and injuries
  • Movements such as pivoting, cutting, or jumping
  • High impact sports that require rapid acceleration/deceleration, including softball, soccer, basketball, football, and occasionally rowing, jogging, or swimming
  • Injuries such as dislocations or fractures
  • Hip problems that transfer to the knee
  • Patellar tendonitis, also known as jumper’s knee
  • Bursitis (bursae, fluid-filled sacs around the knee, are swollen or irritated)
  • Degenerative tears from routine forces in activities, like yard work or jogging, tear the menisci, which weaken due to age and arthritis
  • Traumatic tears from sudden twisting forces

How to Diagnose Knee Pain

Diagnosing knee pain can be done in various ways and will depend on your physical exam and your medical history. Diagnosis tests can include:

  • Knee ultrasound
  • X-rays
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • Blood tests (can detect gout or arthritis)
  • Remove joint fluid

Treatments for Knee Pain

Some of the treatments you can try for your knee pain include:

  • Shoe inserts
  • Knee braces
  • Physical therapy
  • Lubricants
  • Corticosteroids
  • Knee injections
  • Stretches and strength exercises for your knee joint
  • Surgery

Home Remedies for Knee Pain Relief

Here are some things you can do at home to help relieve knee pain:

  • Keep off the leg
  • Avoid exercises and movement that can exacerbate the problem, including:
    • Kneeling
    • Squatting
    • Jogging or running
    • Pivoting or twisting
    • Squatting
    • Playing sports
    • Exercise machines, such as:
      • Rowing machine
      • Leg extensions
      • Stair stepper
      • Bodyweight exercises
    • Dancing and aerobics
    • Swimming breaststroke
  • Elevate your knee above your heart level
  • Ice the knee for 15 minutes every 2 – 4 hours to reduce swelling and pain
  • OTC pain relief options, including ibuprofen, naproxen, and acetaminophen

Final Thoughts

Never wait it out when it comes to knee pain. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms or issues we looked at above, seek help from a specialist as soon as possible. If the symptoms are quite minor or happen infrequently, visit your general practitioner. They can help determine whether you need a specialist.

If you are an athlete or do regular training and find that your symptoms change suddenly or become more intense, seek an evaluation from a knee expert. Finally, get medical assistance immediately if you are experiencing extreme symptoms, including a high fever or sharp, intense pain.

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