Knee pain: Is it arthritis, or is something torn?

Joint Health

by Richard Rhodes, MD

Oct 9, 2020

Knee pain can be a very debilitating and life-altering problem for today’s active adult. Knee pain can creep up slowly over time or literally bring you to your knees in an instant. The causes of knee pain can vary from a torn ligament to arthritis

So, how do you know what the problem is? Sometimes it can be tough to tell what is causing your knee pain, but there are some easy clues for most cases.

Onset of knee pain

The timing of pain can help determine what causes knee pain. Pain from a knee injury is usually obvious, but as a general rule, pain from a strain appears after injury, while a tear hurts immediately. Arthritis pain may appear suddenly but usually is more gradual in onset than other kinds of knee pain.

Aggravating factors

A torn ligament, tendon or meniscus tends to hurt every time you stress it. A torn meniscus can sometimes hurt intermittently, but the pattern is usually similar. 

Arthritis often hurts at the beginning of movement, but once the joint gets warmed up, knee pain may disappear until you slow down again.

Related: How to get rid of knee pain after running

Associated symptoms

While not present with every source of knee pain, some causes have very distinct feelings or mechanical clues, including:

  • A torn meniscus or ligament often will cause a mechanical shift in the knee. 
  • Torn tendons are usually associated with weakness.
  • Arthritis will sometimes cause swelling or a grinding sensation.

Knee pain treatment

While treatment is not the easiest way to figure out what is causing knee pain, there are some universal methods to self-treat almost all sources of joint pain.

Following a sudden onset of pain, there is usually a high level of inflammation. A great way to control that is with ice, compression and over-the-counter medication, like naproxen or ibuprofen. Heat can sometimes help with muscle pain and low-level arthritis pain, but it is usually not helpful for acute injuries.

If a joint is unstable, too painful to walk on or just doesn’t get better within a few days, scheduling a visit with an orthopedic expert can help determine the cause and solution for your knee pain. 

Find a doctor to help you move better.

About the Author

Richard Rhodes, MD, is an orthopedic sports medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Sports Therapy & Research at The Star. Dr. Rhodes specializes in arthroscopic and reconstructive surgery of the shoulder, knee and hip. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Rhodes today.

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