We use our knees all the time as we walk, as we sit, as we move around; yet they are not a part of the body that attracts a lot of attention – or care! Knee problems are so common that for many, they are just ignored until they either go away or become so severe that treatment becomes inevitable. But it makes sense to understand a little more about these small but essential joints.
The most common knee injury is a sprain, a strain or damage to the cartilage. A sprain and a strain are different – a knee sprain is when one or more ligaments are overstretched. Ligaments can also become torn or ruptured. A strain is when a tendon or muscle is overstretched. Damage to the cartilage is quite different again, the cartilage is a crescent shaped disc called a meniscus that acts as a shock absorber in the knee. When this is damaged, that protection has gone and bones can grind against each other.
The main symptom associated with knee problems is pain. Pain in different parts of the knee can indicate different problems. Pain over the front of the knee can indicate problems with the kneecap while pain inside the knee is often due to problems with the cartilage or arthritis of the joint. Pain outside the knee is common with ligament injuries. However, no pain is precise and a pain in any specific area of the knee does not necessarily indicate one of these problems; as with most pain, it needs to be investigated professionally.
Another symptom associated with knee problems is a sense of crunching and grinding. This is a most unpleasant sensation and often indicates that the cartilage is worn away. Sometimes a knee can “pop” or “snap”; this is usually painless and can be the result of a torn ligament.
A locking knee is another problem. If it becomes impossible to bend or straighten the leg, this can be due to a piece of cartilage moving in the joint, or sometimes when pain prevents movement. Sometimes the knee feels very unstable or gives way, this is usually due to overstretched or torn ligaments.
Then of course there is swelling, and this can occur with several different knee problems. An injury to the anterior cruciate ligament or a fracture near the top of the shin can be the cause, or it can be due to a tear in the cartilage or a ligament sprain. Sometimes knee swelling can even be caused by gout.
With any knee problem, it makes sense to see your GP or possibly a physiotherapist and there are three main areas of help: medicine, physiotherapy and surgery.
Medicine to help reduce pain, inflammation and swelling may be prescribed and sometimes this is all that is needed. Sometimes a programme of exercises to gradually strengthen the knee and stretch the muscles can be the solution, and a visit to a physiotherapist will be recommended here. However, in some cases, surgery is needed to repair the knee. This is most likely if you have damaged your anterior cruciate ligament, have a torn cartilage, or other damage. Knee surgery is very common these days and generally extremely successful.
However, as always, prevention is better than cure and a good way to prevent knee problems is to take regular exercise. This doesn’t mean long jogs, just regularly moving the knees to stretch and strengthen the knee. Walking and swimming, low impact activities, are especially good and a physiotherapist can also devise specific exercises to help in individual cases.
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