Did you know there are two joints in the knee? Both connect to the femur (thigh bone), the longest bone in the body. One joint connects the femur with the tibia (shin bone), which is the second longest bone in the body. The other joint connects the femur to the patella (kneecap).
These bones in the knee are held together by the cruciate ligaments. If you’re a sports fan, you’ve heard of athletes tearing their anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate or medial collateral ligament – ACL, PCL or MCL. The job of the ligaments is to control movements and rotation. The cartilage between the bones, called the meniscus, allows the joint to function smoothly, serves as padding between bones, and prevents knee bones from rubbing together.
The complex structure of the knee, combined with the weight and force placed on the knee on a daily basis, explain why humans are so vulnerable to injuries and knee pain. Different types of knee pain can be traced back to traumatic injuries and accidents, repetitive use, inflammation, infection, and gradual wear and tear, all of which can lead to chronic knee pain, swelling or sensitivity.
Unfortunately, many people deal with knee pain in the same way they deal with other types of pain. They just live with it. Knee pain becomes an accepted part of their routine. If the pain gets bad, they take painkillers. They might start limping or otherwise compensating for the pain, which often leads to painful conditions in other areas.
Quality of life suffers, and they never get to the root cause. But if you don’t get to the root cause, you can’t solve the problem. Here are some of the most common causes of knee pain.
Osteoarthritis is pain and damage caused by degeneration and deterioration of cartilage in the joint over a period of time. When the cartilage breaks down, the bones can rub together, causing pain and stiffness.
The bursa sac above the knee prevents friction as the joint moves. Bursitis is the pain and swelling that occurs when the bursa becomes irritated from trauma or overuse.
Car accidents, falls, collisions, sports injuries and other trauma can cause one or more bones in the knee to break. If you have a degenerative condition like osteoarthritis or osteoporosis, you’re more susceptible to fractures.
Ligament and Meniscal Tears
Ever wonder why an athlete tore an ACL but not an MCL or vice versa? A torn ACL is usually caused by a sudden twist or change in direction. For example, a soccer or football player can tear his or her ACL without any contact. A torn PCL or MCL, on the other hand, is typically caused by a direct blow to the knee area. Similarly, the meniscus can be torn or damaged by a traumatic event.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that causes knee pain when the immune system attacks the tissue in the knee area. Knee pain from inflammation and swelling in the connective tissue can be severe.
Iliotibial (IT) Band Syndrome
The IT band stretches from your hip to the outside of your knee. IT band syndrome is typically caused by inflammation from overuse, particularly among runners.
The patella, or kneecap, can become dislocated. Patellar tendinitis is inflammation in the tendon between the kneecap and shinbone. This is sometimes called jumper’s knee because repeated jumping is the top cause. Patellofemoral pain syndrome is another form of knee pain in the patella that’s more common in women than men. Muscle imbalances and misalignment in the legs can make it difficult for the knee to support your weight, causing the knee to buckle.
What to Do When You Experience Knee Pain
If you experience pain when you bend or straighten your knee, or you notice swelling, stiffness, or an inability to put weight on your knee, rest your knee for a few days. Use ice and a compression bandage or strap to keep swelling down.
If you suffer a serious knee injury or the pain lasts for more than a few days, get your knee pain checked. Make sure you see a doctor who knows how to evaluate and safely test the knee and use diagnostic imaging to get to the root cause of your knee pain. While medication and surgery are sometimes required, medication should be used temporarily and sparingly, and surgery should be an absolute last resort.