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Three Common Knee Problems and What Physical Therapy Can Do

knee problems

By Devin Wurman, DPT

Knee injuries are one of the most common injuries that we see in physical therapy, whether it’s due to a sports-related injury or due to degenerative changes that occur as we age.  Some of the most common knee injuries include:

  • Sprains and strains
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Ligament injuries
  • Meniscus injuries

All of these cause pain, weakness and a decrease in functional activities.

Ligament injuries are more common among the active patient population. Sports such as soccer and basketball that involve jumping, planting of the leg or a change in direction can cause ACL tears. This is a significant injury that requires physical therapy, then surgery to repair the tear and then post-surgery rehabilitation to help return the patient to their previous functional levels. Doctors are prescribing pre-op physical therapy more frequently these days as it can increase range of motion and strengthen the knee. This kind of preparation helps the patient come out of surgery with a better outcome.  Initially, rehabilitation following surgery involves focusing on increasing range of motion, decreasing swelling and pain and then improving strength.  Later phases of physical therapy address higher level balance deficits, return to running and sports-specific drills.

Another common diagnosis for knee injuries is meniscus injuries. These can occur suddenly with sports that involve twisting or cutting. The older patient population is also prone to meniscus tears as degeneration of the meniscus occurs overtime. When the meniscus degenerates, your knee has less cushioning and therefore less shock absorption. Recent research has shown that physical therapy should be the first course of action to treat the meniscus.  This is because while immediate surgery may help with the pain, in the long run, it predisposes the patient to osteoarthritis.  When a patient has meniscus surgery, a piece of it is removed and therefore, the cushioning of the joint is removed.  This allows closer approximation of the top leg bone (femur) to the bottom weight-bearing leg bone (tibia), which can cause an earlier onset of arthritis. Physical therapy works to improve knee range of motion, strength (supports the joint), improved balance, and therefore decreases pain and improves function.

Finally, the next most common diagnosis we see in therapy for knees is arthritis. Arthritis involves inflammation of the joints which causes pain, swelling, and stiffness.  This can make it very difficult to do normal daily activities such as walking, using stairs and staying in one position for too long. With knee arthritis, the cartilage around the bones of your knee wears down and becomes frayed and rough. This in turn decreases the joint space and causes bone on bone. Physical therapy is a great first line of treatment for knee arthritis. Physical therapy will focus on restoring range of motion, strength, balance and decreasing pain in order to make everyday activities easier. If the arthritis is bad enough, a knee replacement may be needed. If that is the case, patients come to physical therapy before surgery to get as much mobility and strength as possible, so that after surgery outcomes are usually better.

If you are, or someone you know is having knee pain, don’t try to push through the pain and risk further injury. Our expert therapists can evaluate your symptoms and determine the correct course of treatment. Prolonging treatment can lead to more serious, chronic conditions that take a lot longer to recover from. Our therapists would be happy to help you get back to the activities you love!

CLICK HERE for a quick self-assessment you can do to test for a common knee injury.

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