Chronic Knee Pain: Causes and Treatments

Joint pain is bothersome in any form, but when it becomes chronic, it can be debilitating. Chronic knee pain can make the simplest tasks seem almost impossible. Everything from walking to sitting down can be painful, and coping with chronic knee pain without seeking treatment can make the situation even worse.

The knee joints are two of the strongest and most vulnerable joints in the body. Knowing what could injure them and how to properly treat any knee injury can be the difference between living an active life and living in discomfort.

What Causes Chronic Knee Pain?

The causes of chronic knee pain can vary, but they’re usually the result of two reasons:

  • Trauma: Traumatic injuries are usually ones that happen suddenly, like falling. However, they can also be the result of repetitive motions or receiving a blow to the knee.
  • Medical conditions: As we age, our bodies become more vulnerable to degenerative disorders, such as arthritis. Some of these conditions negatively affect the joints, leading to chronic pain.

Chronic knee pain causes ongoing discomfort in the knee — this can be in the form of swelling or sensitivity, and it can affect one or both knees. Traumatic injuries can lead to dislocation of the kneecap, a fracture or tears in ligaments or in the meniscus — which is a piece of cartilage that provides cushioning. 

Traumatic injuries are often preventable with simple activities, like ensuring you warm up properly before exercising and using proper protective equipment when playing sports. Medical conditions aren’t always preventable, though. 

Degenerative issues, like osteoarthritis or gout, or more serious concerns, like tumors, can result in chronic knee pain, and there’s little a person can do to prevent them. Other medical conditions that may lead to chronic knee pain include:

  • Tendonitis: Typically a pain in the front part of the knee, tendonitis will only get worse with continued movement.
  • Baker’s cyst: There is fluid in the knee that helps lubricate it, so it can bend easily and without pain. When this fluid builds up, it can form a baker’s cyst, which can cause ongoing knee pain.
  • Bursitis: When the knee is overused, especially without proper rest, it can become inflamed, resulting in bursitis.
  • Chondromalacia patella: Chondromalacia patella occurs when the cartilage below the kneecap has been damaged.
  • Osteosarcoma: A type of bone cancer that most often happens in the knee, osteosarcoma is also the second most common type of bone cancer.
  • Cellulitis: The good bacteria that live on our skin are meant to live on it, not in it. Cellulitis occurs when that bacteria ends up under the skin’s protective surface, causing a bacterial infection.

Chronic Versus Acute Pain

Pain is the body’s way of warning you, which is why it usually comes on quickly and eventually fades away. Pain from stubbing your toe or healing from surgery are both examples of acute pain, because they don’t last longer than a few months. In many cases, the pain will lessen and disappear as the cause disappears. 

Alternatively, chronic pain doesn’t go away without medical intervention. However, chronic pain can also occur, even if the initial cause of pain heals or disappears because the pain signals remain active for a long time. 

Usually, acute pain is fleeting and often goes away with time. Chronic pain, on the other hand, is the result of a singular significant incident and rarely goes away on its own — it requires diagnosing and treatment. 

How to Diagnose Chronic Knee Pain

There are two steps to getting a chronic knee pain diagnosis: a consultation with a doctor, and any potential imaging or lab tests.

The doctor will determine which diagnostic lab tests are needed after they have performed a physical examination of your knee. They will ask you to bend the knee and may feel around to see if certain areas hurt more. Their conclusions will dictate which lab tests will be needed.

Lab or imaging tests for chronic knee pain diagnoses can include X-rays, blood work, MRIs or CT scans. You may need to go in for multiple imaging or lab tests, so the doctor can diagnose what type of chronic knee pain you have, so you can begin the appropriate treatment.

How to Treat Chronic Knee Pain

While chronic knee pain doesn’t fade away on its own, it is treatable. The type of chronic knee pain you’re experiencing will dictate which course of treatment is best for your situation. 

There are several types of treatments that are options, including:

1. Therapy

Physical therapy helps strengthen the muscles around the painful area of the knee, which helps make it stable. Depending on the cause of your chronic knee pain, you may be prescribed physical therapy or just physical exercise to perform on your own at home. 

If you’re active, the doctor may prescribe specific exercises that will help retrain how you use your knees to take some pressure off the injured one. Similarly, you may be required to wear a leg brace or invest in tools to improve your foot’s arch to redistribute your weight.

2. Injections

Your doctor may prescribe injections for chronic knee pain, which will help alleviate the pain for several months. Some substances that can potentially help include:

  • Corticosteroids: This drug helps reduce the inflammation and symptoms of arthritis, leaving you pain-free for months. However, corticosteroids don’t work for everyone.
  • Hyaluronic acid: This acid mimics the natural fluid used for lubrication in the knees. It increases mobility and reduces joint pain and can last for several months. However, the effectiveness of hyaluronic acid is contested.
  • Platelet-rich plasma: Ideal for those whose chronic knee pain is due to ligament tears or sprains, platelet-rich plasma is a concoction of platelets from your own body to help heal injuries. 

3. Medication

Pain-relief medication can sometimes be a simple answer to chronic knee pain. Your doctor may prescribe painkillers that are stronger than over-the-counter ones to help you manage any discomfort.

4. Surgery

Often used as a last resort, surgery is sometimes the most effective treatment for chronic pain. Surgery will likely only be an option after other treatments fail. When surgery does become an option, the type will be dependent on the specifics of your chronic knee pain.

One option is to try to fix whatever is injured, such as mending a torn ligament or damaged cartilage. Another option is to partially or completely replace the knee. Partial knee surgery replaces only the extremely damaged parts of the knee with artificial parts made of metal and plastic. A full knee replacement, as its name suggests, replaces the entire knee with an artificial joint.

Find Chronic Knee Pain Treatment Near You

There’s no need to suffer through chronic knee pain, especially when the Orthopedic Institute of Pennsylvania’s physicians are here to help. While surgery may end up being the best option, it is never the first one we suggest. We opt instead to work with each patient to find non-invasive ways to treat chronic pain.

With numerous locations across Pennsylvania, we’re dedicated to helping you live a pain-free life. To request an appointment at one of our locations, simply fill out the form online or call 717-761-5530.

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