Knee Strain: Identifying When to See a Doctor
Nearly a fifth of Americans haven’t seen a doctor in the last 5 years. Surprisingly, the issue isn’t just financial. One of the most common reasons for staying away from the doctor’s office was trust.
Specifically, whether they can trust that procedures doctors recommend are actually necessary. The subtext is clear – millions feel that doctors administer expensive treatment just for profit.
But this fear has detrimental consequences. Overall health in the US is declining, despite advances in medicine.
Trying to treat any serious injury – including knee strain – at home can lead to higher medical costs down the road when the problem gets worse. But how are you supposed to know if a problem will recover with home remedies, or whether you need to see a doctor?
When to See a Doctor for Knee Strain
Here’s our comprehensive guide for whether your knee pain warrants a doctor’s attention. We’ve listed 9 signs that your injury is serious enough to need the treatment of a pain specialist.
If it doesn’t fall into any of these categories, it should be possible to recover at home. In that case, follow our tips at the end for knee pain home treatment.
1. Long-Term Knee Swelling
Swelling on its own doesn’t mean that your knee injury is serious. Our body causes swelling to protect damaged areas so it doesn’t get worse.
Swelling can also cause pain. While this sounds like a bad thing, it discourages us from using the injured area, which allows it to rest and heal.
So swelling is a normal part of injury, serious or not.
But if your swelling is still increasing after 48 hours, it’s telling you something. Your injury can’t be healed on its own – at least not safely.
On the other hand, it may mean the body is overreacting. Then, prolonged swelling becomes a problem in its own right. It can start to damage the muscles around it.
Whether the swelling means that your injury is serious or your body is creating too much inflammation, you should see a doctor.
2. Immediate Swelling on the Knee
A little blood when you scrape your knee usually won’t warrant a trip to the ER. However, look out for the signs of internal bleeding.
Swelling can take a whole day to properly set in. But if your knee swells within an hour of the injury, that means there’s probably bleeding in the knee.
The underlying problem is likely one of the following, all of which are very serious:
- A dislocated kneecap
- Damaged cartilage
- A torn ligament
- A bone fracture
Do not attempt to heal these injuries exclusively at home. Start by following at-home remedy methods, such as rest and ice. But seek medical attention as soon as possible.
That gives the injury the best chance of healing fully. Otherwise, you may be left with a permanent problem.
3. A Popping Sound or Sensation When Injured
Did you hear anything when your knee strain occurred? It could have been a popping or snapping sound. Even if you didn’t hear anything, do you remember a popping or snapping sensation?
All of these are signs of serious injury to the ligament or tendons. One may be torn or even snapped completely. These injuries often occur from stretching or twisting, rather than from impact.
If this sounds like your injury, seek medical assistance immediately, even if the pain has subsided.
4. Reduced Range of Motion
After a knee injury, it will likely feel like your knee has a reduced range of motion. The swelling and pain will make it difficult to move properly.
But if it persists, there may be an issue inside the knee. Most likely, a cartilage tear is stopping the knee from moving freely. Cartilage tears are often caused by sudden twisting or bending.
See a doctor to treat this issue.
What if your range of motion becomes reduced, but you haven’t injured your knee? There are other causes besides impact or strain.
Another condition like arthritis, or something like an infection, may be to blame. In either case, visit your doctor.
Instability in the knee is not a typical symptom of all knee injuries. It suggests there is a problem with the ligaments.
Ligaments connect the knee to surrounding bones, specifically the thigh and shin bone. This stabilizes the whole leg, allowing it to support your weight.
When a ligament is damaged, the whole leg becomes unstable. This can lead to further injury if you try to walk on it.
Some people are born with a predisposition to ligament laxity that makes the knee unstable. However, a sudden onset of instability means something has gone wrong and needs treatment. Causes of ligament damage include sudden impact, stopping suddenly, or twisting or jumping.
If the problem is very minor, it may be able to heal after home treatment and plenty of rest. But long-term ligament damage can be permanent if not treated. In other words, the pain and difficulty walking would also become permanent.
So if instability persists, it’s best to visit a pain specialist.
6. The Knee Can't Take Weight
After a small knee sprain, it’s normal to not be able to walk on the leg. The swelling is causing pain in the area to force you to rest.
However, if it persists, it’s not a minor injury. If you can’t walk on it after a few days of rest, it suggests the bone or ligaments are damaged.
These injuries should not be healed at home. They require medical treatment.
7. The Knee Can't Extend
Knee injury often comes with muscle stiffness. Especially if the pain has stopped you from moving the knee for a few days, it may feel difficult to extend your leg. Normally, this can be improved with gentle strengthening exercises.
But what if this problem persists, or is still accompanied by sharp pain? Then it’s probably a serious injury, such as:
- Damaged tendon
- Damaged cartilage
- Dislocated kneecap
All of these can become permanent issues if left untreated. It’s important to see a doctor while the knee injury can still be healed.
8. Deformed Knee
When a knee is injured, the swelling that results can make the knee look misshapen. But as the swelling reduces, the knee shape should return back to normal.
If it doesn’t, that may mean there’s still an issue inside the knee. Likely it is with one of the tendons, ligaments, or the cartilage.
On the other hand, the knee may begin to look misshapen on its own. Rather than injury from impact or twisting, this may be a sign of disease. This also requires a doctor’s attention.
The last option is that knee deformity is a sign of a long-term condition developing, such as knock-knees. Even if there is no pain, immediately visit a doctor. Starting physical therapy early is the best way to prevent the condition from worsening.
9. Prolonged Pain
Even a tame knee injury is going to cause you pain, and will need good rest to recover properly. If none of the above categories apply, the damage is probably healing well.
However, if the knee is still in pain a couple of weeks after the injury, it may be worse than you think.
A small handful of injuries may not present any symptoms other than prolonged pain. These problems can’t heal on their own, and require medical intervention. One of these is torn cartilage.
A knee tear is usually caused by overexerting the knee. Specifically twisting it too far, or at the wrong angle, can tear the cartilage.
This injury usually comes with swelling and difficulty straightening the leg. But if it’s just a small tear, it may only manifest as pain. So if your knee pain is persistent, visit a pain specialist who can check for this damage.
What if the Knee Doesn't Hurt to Touch?
A less common knee strain symptom is when the knee doesn’t hurt to the touch. It may ache or sting, but pressing on it doesn’t increase the pain. Does that mean the injury isn’t serious?
Not necessarily. This can actually be a sign that the injury is elsewhere.
The knee is affected by many other parts of the body. The lower leg, thighs, pelvis, and hips are all connected to the knee.
This gives the knee incredible strength and range of motion. However, that means injuries elsewhere in the body can affect the knee.
If your knee hurts but doesn’t hurt to touch, your knee may not be the problem. In that case, it’s best to see a pain specialist. You may have an injury in the hip or elsewhere in the leg that needs treatment.
If none of the previous criteria apply, it’s likely that your knee injury isn’t serious.
The pain should be temporary. But you can still help the healing process along. Here are the most effective methods.
The RICE Method
The RICE method is the most common home remedy for a knee injury. There are four steps:
Avoid walking or putting weight on the knee. Avoid moving the knee as much as possible. This allows the muscles, tendons, and ligaments to heal.
Icing the injury helps to reduce swelling and inflammation. The ice reduces blood flow to the area, which also helps decrease the pain.
To ice a knee injury, don’t apply ice directly to the knee. Instead, wrap an ice pack in a towel. Hold it on the knee as long as is comfortable.
Compressing the knee with a bandage also helps to reduce swelling.
It should not be so tight that it reduces mobility. Also, don’t keep the compression bandages on while sleeping.
To reduce swelling and pain further, keep the knee elevated. Ideally, it should be kept above the height of your heart.
On the other hand, your condition may be best treated by heat. This is less effective for injuries but can reduce the symptoms of other knee conditions. For example, those struggling with arthritis in the knee may benefit from at-home heat treatment.
Heating the knee works has several benefits:
- Relax tense muscles
- Relieve muscle rigidity or spasms
- Dilate blood vessels
Dilating blood vessels with heat is particularly helpful as it increases blood flow to the area. The more blood in the area, the more oxygen and nutrients. This helps with the healing process and gaining knee mobility.
Depending on the injury, massaging the area can help to heal injured muscles.
However, this is only recommended for very light injuries. If the damage is serious, incorrect massage or physical therapy exercises can aggravate the injury. If you’re unsure, or if any massaging exercises worsen the pain, see a pain specialist instead.
How to Find Knee Strain Treatment
If you determine that your knee strain needs to be treated by a doctor, what should you do next? You need to find a pain specialist.
That’s what we do.
We work with the best pain doctors around the country. We’ve thoroughly investigated each one, and approve of their holistic methods. These doctors will help you recover with natural, non-invasive treatment.
Best of all, we don’t charge patients for our services! You’ll never receive an invoice from us.