The knee is a large and complex joint. It is composed of bones, tendons, cartilage, ligaments and fluid-filled sacks that help lubricate the joint. As the body's workhorse, it's also vulnerable to injury.
When injured, the knee responds with a cascade of reactions that lead to inflammation and repair. Repeated injury and inflammation can lead to progressive knee pain and keep complete healing from happening.
You can often take care of minor knee injuries and mild pain and swelling at home, but when symptoms don't go away or get worse (or are severe initially), it's time to see your doctor.
Assess the symptoms
Symptoms of a minor knee injury may include:
- Pain when bending the knee.
- Pain when walking or going up or down stairs.
- Slight swelling in one area (just below the kneecap or on one side).
- Creaking or popping sound when moving the knee.
If you have an injury, it's important to use first aid as soon as possible. First aid may also help for pain from a wear-and-tear injury, such as from frequent strain on your knee or even when you don't have a specific known injury. In this case, though, you will eventually need to get at the root cause of the pain or it may get worse. Pain that persists requires a diagnosis by a doctor.
Apply first aid
Use a therapy known as "RICE", which stands for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation.
- Rest the knee. Don't do any activity that causes pain. Stay off your feet as much as possible. You may only need a day or two of rest for a minor injury. If you need more time, there may be a more severe injury that needs your doctor's care.
- Ice. Apply ice or a cold pad to reduce acute knee pain and swelling. Doctors advise applying ice for no longer than 15 minutes at a time, three or four times a day. A homemade cold pack made of frozen peas in a plastic bag fits the contours of your knee joint. Don't apply anything frozen (ice, frozen veggie pack or anything else) directly to your skin. Protect your skin by placing the cold pack in cloth or an article of clothing. Remove the ice if the area starts to feel numb. Do not use ice if you have diabetes, or problems with your nerves or blood vessels.
- Compression. Use a compression bandage to reduce swelling. A stretchable bandage works well. Wrap the bandage around your knee, being careful not to cut off blood flow. Do not use a compression bandage at night or when sleeping.
- Elevate the knee above your heart to reduce swelling and prevent fluid buildup. Try propping up your knee on pillows while lying in bed or sitting in a recliner.
Pain relievers. Over-the-counter pain relievers can help with pain and swelling.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) include naproxen and ibuprofen. These medicines can reduce swelling as well as pain.
- Acetaminophen is another choice for pain relief, but it does not have anti-inflammatory action.
But both of these types of medicines can interact with other medicines and cannot be used by people who have certain medical problems. Ask your doctor which over-the-counter medicine is right for you. Be careful to follow the label directions on any medicines that you use.
See your doctor for knee pain if:
- You can't put weight on the knee.
- There is a lot of swelling.
- You can't bend or straighten the knee joint.
- The pain is severe.
- Knee pain persists in spite of home treatment.
Seek emergency medical help if:
- There is a deformity (such as from a broken bone) on the leg or knee.
- You have a loss of feeling in the leg.
- There are signs of infection, such as a swollen, red knee joint that is warm to the touch, as well as fever.
Created on 06/08/1999
Updated on 02/11/2013
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Q&A about knee problems.
- UpToDate Patient information: Knee pain (beyond the basics).
- United States National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. MedlinePlus. Knee injuries and disorders.
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. How are sprains and strains treated?