Whether you wake up with a stiff knee, sustain an injury, or start feeling knee pain for seemingly no good reason, you might wonder what to do. Should you immediately rush off to the doctor? Can you just ignore it and hope it will get better? Can you treat it yourself? Knowing when you need a doctor’s intervention can be a tricky decision to make.
We see people at the start of injuries and after they’ve been ongoing,” says Nancy White, M.D., a sports medicine physician at Henry Ford Health. “While the sooner you see an expert, the better, there’s really no right or wrong to it. However, there are a few key signs that it’s a good idea to get it checked out.”
Dr. White recommends seeing a doctor if:
► You are waking up with consistent knee stiffness. If there’s no history of an injury involved, it could be due to osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.
► If your knee pain isn’t going away.
► Your knee is swollen and you can’t bear weight on it.
► You can’t fully flex or extend your knee.
► Your knee is warm to the touch. This could signal inflammation.
If your pain is mild — or you’re trying to decide whether to see someone — Dr. White recommends icing it on a scheduled basis. “That means two to three times a day,” she says. “Apply the ice to your knee. It will get cold. It will burn, then it will get numb. Remove the ice when it gets to the numb stage.”
She also recommends elevating your leg and putting a compression wrap or sleeve on your knee. If the pain is bad, you can try taking ibuprofen or naproxen for a few days.
Common Causes of Knee Pain
But if your knee is not getting better, it’s a good idea to see a doctor, as common causes of knee pain include:
► ACL sprains and tears. Short for anterior cruciate ligament, the ACL is one of four ligaments in the knee that allows it to flex and extend. The ACL can tear when your foot is firmly planted in place, and the knee locks and twists or pivots at the same time.
► MCL sprains and tears. Short for medial collateral ligament, the MCL connects your shinbone to your thighbone. It can tear when landing after a jump, or after an exterior blow to the knee (usually during contact sports). Luckily, most MCL injuries heal on their own.
► Meniscal tears. The menisci are your knee’s shock absorbers; they're two discs made of soft cartilage. Abrupt movements (like pivots, stops, turns, squats or lifts) can cause them to tear.
► Kneecap dislocation. A direct hit to the knee — or a sudden twist or pivoting of the leg — can make the kneecap can shift out of place.
► Patellar tendonitis. This is also known as Jumper’s Knee, as it’s a common injury in basketball and volleyball players. The patellar tendon connects the bottom of the kneecap to the top of the shinbone, and can become inflamed from overuse, excessive force or repetitive stress.
Knee bursitis. The bursa is a small, fluid-filled sac located near the knee joint. Knee bursitis occurs when the bursa becomes inflamed, often because of a knee injury or overuse from frequent kneeling.
How to Help Prevent Knee Pain
And if you want to help prevent knee pain in the future? “Exercise regularly so that you’re strengthening your quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscles,” says Dr. White. “It’s also important to stretch to increase quadricep and hamstring flexibility.”
Wearing shoes with sturdy soles and proper arch support can also help ease pain and issues you may already have, says Dr. White. “I would say the top reasons people get into trouble with their knees are things they could prevent by changing lifestyle habits. This includes maintaining a healthy weight, as being overweight can also lead to increased wear and tear on the joints.
To learn more about your orthopedic condition or to find a provider, visit henryford.com/ortho.
Dr. Nancy White is a sports medicine physician at Henry Ford Health. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Novi, and Henry Ford Medical Center — Bloomfield Township.
When you've been hit with an injury, it's natural to want to get back to your regular activities as soon as possible. In fact, it's not uncommon for athletes to sidestep doctors' orders and return to the field or the court before an injury has healed.
"It doesn’t matter how much you train, or how much you prepare, injuries are going to happen, especially if you're an athlete," says Jamie Schwab, an athletic trainer at Henry Ford Health System. "But the real trouble arises when athletes try to play through their pain without allowing sufficient time for recovery."
Risks Of Returning Too Soon After Injury
If you sprain your ankle during a cross country run, it can be tempting to finish the race. Unfortunately, hiding your pain and powering through the activity can actually make matters worse.
"If you continue to work out after suffering from an injury, you run the risk of furthering that injury," Schwab says. So what began as a minor ankle sprain can evolve into a major sprain that sidelines you for weeks.
Returning to play after surgery demands extra precautions. "Athletes are a lot more susceptible to re-injury after returning from surgery, especially if they don't complete the entire 9-month or year-long rehabilitation protocol," Schwab says. In some cases, you can exacerbate an injury to such a degree that you'll never be able to participate in the same capacity.
A Safe Return To Play
The road back to play after an injury is a long and winding one. Before you can even consider returning to exercise, you need to reduce swelling, get pain under control and get your range of motion back to almost normal.
"The recovery process takes time," Schwab says. "But if you stick with it, and you take it seriously, it's going to be a whole lot easier for you to return to the playing field in a timely manner."
Once you get pain and swelling under control, you can focus on agility and weight exercises that will help you regain strength and slowly return to baseline. The key tenets for a safer return to play:
► Be honest about your abilities: "So many athletes are afraid to tell the truth," Schwab says. "But if you're hurting and you're not competing at your full potential, you're letting your team down and yourself down, too." Even worse, you could increase your risk of further injury.
► Focus on building strength: Strength training is critical. It can help you become faster, stronger and more agile on the field. It can also help you recover more quickly after an injury.
► Listen to your body: If something doesn't feel right, pay attention to it. Talk to your athletic trainer or a physical therapist to get to the bottom of what's bugging you and put a plan in place to address it.
Boosting Performance Over The Long Haul
Unfortunately, not every coach and athletic trainer stresses the importance of a maintenance program. In fact, focused training and maintenance exercises are key to preventing injuries in the first place.
"The rehabilitation exercises you begin doing on day one after injury need to be maintained at least three to four times each week, indefinitely," Schwab says. "If you follow that regimen, all of your muscular nagging strains will no longer be a problem because your body is constantly adapting to the stresses. It's conditioned, it's strong, it can withstand the constant changes in direction."
Most importantly, don't be afraid to try complementary strategies. Practice using a foam roller, try cupping to release tension in the muscles and enhance blood flow and consider getting a monthly massage.
Jamie Schwab, AT, ATC, SCAT, CSCS, is an athletic trainer with Henry Ford Sports Medicine and works with student athletes at Edsel Ford High School. She is a National Strength and Conditioning Association-certified strength and conditioning specialist.
To find a sports medicine doctor or athletic trainer at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com/sports.