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First aid

Knee pain

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Does this describe your symptoms?

  • Pain in the knee

Causes of Knee Pain

  • Arthritis (e.g., degenerative, gouty, infectious, inflammatory, traumatic)
  • Baker's Cyst (popliteal cyst): This is a fluid collection in a cyst that bulges out from the knee joint. Symptoms include painful or painless swelling in the area behind the knee.
  • Bursitis: Prepatellar bursitis is a fluid filled sack localized on the inferior aspect of the anterior knee.
  • Cellulitis
  • Overuse injury, tendonitis
  • Patellofemoral pain syndrome (chondromalacia patellae)
  • Trauma (e.g., contusion, dislocation, fracture, sprain, strain)

Some Signs and Symptoms That Could be SERIOUS

  • Severe pain and unable to walk
  • Knee swelling with fever (possibility of infection of knee joint)
  • Unilateral calf pain and/or swelling (possibility of blood clot in leg)

If not, see these topics

When to Call Your Doctor

Call Your Doctor Now (night or day) If
  • You feel weak or very sick
  • Severe pain (can't stand or walk)
  • Fever and swollen knee joint
  • Redness of skin around knee
  • Pain or swelling in one calf
Call Your Doctor Within 24 Hours (between 9 am and 4 pm) If
  • You think you need to be seen
Call Your Doctor During Weekday Office Hours If
  • You have other questions or concerns
  • Swollen knee joint
  • Fluid-filled sack just below knee cap
  • Limping
  • Symptoms interfere with work or school
  • Knee pain persists longer than 7 days
  • Knee pain is a recurrent problem
  • Knee giving way (or buckling) when walking, is a recurrent problem
  • Knee locking (i.e., joint gets stuck, catching), is a recurrent problem
Self Care at Home If
  • Mild knee pain and you don't think you need to be seen

  1. Knee Pain after Overuse: Muscle strain and joint irritation are very common following vigorous activity. Such activities include sports like tennis and basketball, jogging, and certain types of work.
    • Local Cold: Apply a cold pack or ice bag (wrapped in a moist towel) to the area for 20 minutes. Repeat in 1 hour, then every 4 hours while awake. Continue this for the first 48 hours after an overuse injury (Reason: reduce the swelling and pain).
    • Local Heat: Beginning 48 hours after an injury, apply a warm washcloth or heating pad for 10 minutes three times a day to help increase circulation and improve healing.
  2. Rest Your Knee for the next couple days. Avoid activities that worsen your pain. Reduce activities that put a lot of strain on the knee joint (e.g., deep knee bends, stair climbing, running).
  3. Pain Medication:
    • For pain relief, take acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
    • Acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol): The dose is 650 mg by mouth every 4 hours or 1000 mg by mouth every 6 hours. Maximum dose per day = 4000 mg.
    • Ibuprofen (e.g., Motrin, Advil): The dose is 400 mg by mouth every 6 hours or 600 mg by mouth every 8 hours.
    • People who are over 65 Years of age: Acetaminophen is generally considered safer than ibuprofen. Acetaminophen dosing interval should be increased to every 8 hours because of reduced liver metabolism. Maximum dose per day = 3000 mg.
    • CAUTION: Do not take ibuprofen if you have stomach problems, kidney disease, are pregnant, or have been told by your doctor to avoid this type of anti-inflammatory drug. Do not take ibuprofen for more than 7 days without consulting your doctor.
    • CAUTION: Do not take acetaminophen if you have liver disease.
    • Read the package instructions thoroughly on all medications that you take.
  4. Expected Course: If your knee pain does not get better during the next week or if it recurs, then you should make an appointment with your doctor.
  5. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Knee pain persists longer than 7 days
    • You become worse

And remember, contact your doctor if you develop any of the "Call Your Doctor" symptoms.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Author and Senior Reviewer: David A. Thompson, M.D.

Last Reviewed: 1/19/2009

Last Revised: 4/5/2008

Content Set: Adult HouseCalls Online

Portions Copyright 2000-2009 Self Care Decisions LLC; Copyright LMS, Inc.

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