Your knees are the largest joints in your body, and they do a lot of heavy lifting. Four bones connect here, along with a variety of ligaments, tendons, meniscus, cartilage, and muscles. There’s a lot packed into the areas, and everything in our knee plays an important role.
Still, knee pain is one of the most common complaints people have when visiting a doctor at any age. You could experience swelling, redness, weakness, or immobility, and many of these problems can alter the course of your life, much less make it difficult to perform daily activities.
Here are the most common knee injuries that can occur, along with some ways to prevent injury, rehabilitate them if they get hurt, and keep them healthy in the long run.
1. Ligament Injuries
Ligaments are small fibrous cords that connect two bones together. They provide strength and support during an allowable range of motion. There are two main types of knee ligaments: cruciate and collateral.
Cruciate ligament tears occur within your knee joints. These ligaments cross like an X at the center of your knee and keep your femur and fibula aligned from front to back. A tear in one of these ligaments (also called a “sprain”) can cause your leg bones to misalign while you walk, sit, and move.
Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears are the most commonly operated on, with about 100,000 procedures performed annually, but your posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) can also be injured.
Collateral ligament tears occur on the outside of your knee joints. These ligaments run alongside the sides of your knees and keep the bones aligned from side to side. The medial collateral ligament (MCL) connects the femur to the tibia alongside the inside of your leg, while the lateral collateral ligament (LCL) runs along the outside of your leg and connects the femur to your fibula.
An ACL injury can end an athlete’s career, and they are common in all sports, especially basketball, football, baseball, volleyball, and hockey. And it’s a disqualifying injury for military service too.
2. Tendon Injuries
Tendons are thicker than ligaments and connect muscle to bone. This makes them an integral part of how we move our limbs. The patellar tendons connect your knees with your lower legs, while the quadriceps tendon connects your kneecap to your thigh muscles. There are two main injuries to watch out for in your tendons
Tendon tears are uncommon, but they can be devastating when they do. These ruptures can cause extreme pain and long-term disability as your quadriceps are especially vital when extending the leg to stand, walk, run, and jump. Besides direct trauma, certain steroids and antibiotics can increase the risk of a ruptured tendon.
Tendonitis is a medical term describing an inflamed tendon, which can cause swelling and pain. Diagnosing this condition often requires x-ray and gout testing to ensure there are no further complications. Surgery may be required in extreme cases.
3. Meniscus Tears
The meniscus is a pair of triangular or crescent-shaped fibrocartilage pieces that absorb shock between your femur and tibia. A torn meniscus is one of the most common knee injuries and occurs when you forcefully rotate or twist your knee, especially in an unnatural direction.
It can take up to 24 hours before you notice the pain and swelling from a torn meniscus, and you may feel like the knee is either locked in place or destabilized. The risk increases as you get older, especially if you’re participating in sports or other vigorous activities.
A meniscus tear can typically be treated nonsurgically in mild cases, although it can also cause more long-term problems like osteoarthritis. This includes RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation), physical therapy, and cortisone knee injections.
Surgical methods may be recommended if the situation is more severe. A meniscus repair or partial meniscectomy is typically performed. However, even if the cartilage is sewn back together, the blood supply available in the knee makes it unlikely to recover. Less than 10% of these tears are repairable.
Your femur (thighbone) and tibia (shinbone) should connect at the knee joint. If they have been forced in different directions, they could disconnect, causing a dislocated knee. You could also experience a similar dislocation if your patella (kneecap) is moved from its proper positioning on your knee joint.
If either of these dislocations is only partial, it’s called a subluxation. This means it’s not in the right place, but it’s also not fully popped out of place. This is a lot more common because if your knee is fully dislocated, that also typically means the associated ligaments are also torn.
Dislocated knees and patellas are common in athletes, dancers, and anyone with more pressure on their joints (big and tall people, women). When they do occur, they are very painful and could be accompanied by a variety of other injuries. It will lock your knee, cause instability, and make it both difficult and painful to walk, even after relocation.
5. Knee Bursitis
A bursa is a small, fluid-filled sac positioned around your knee joints. They reduce friction between bone surfaces and soft tissue, providing a cushion while you move. Their membrane is very thin (only a few cells thick) and filled with a lubricating synovial fluid.
There are several types of bursae (synovial, superficial, and adventitious), and if they are involved with all of your body’s joints. If the bursae in your knee become inflamed, it causes knee bursitis.
Knee bursitis is most commonly found in your knee cap or the inner side of your knee below the joint and can limit mobility while causing pain. It’s often caused by a sharp blow to the knee, and can also be caused by sustained pressure, and complications with gout or infections. The bursae can sometimes get infected, which requires immediate medical attention.
6. Bone Fractures and Breaks
As mentioned above, your knee consists of four bones, and a crack or break can occur in any of them. While the other bones are typically associated with a broken leg, a broken knee is typically referring specifically to your knee cap (patella bone).
Broken bones can occur from any type of injury, from a car accident to a sudden fall. And patellas are no different – they can be fractured or completely shattered. And the pieces could end up moving far apart and require screws and plates to keep in place.
Although a broken bone is a much more painful injury than a torn ligament, they typically recover much easier. Athletes who have broken bones rehabilitate and return to normal competition at a faster pace and higher rate than an ACL tear. It typically takes about six months to fully recover from a broken bone, which includes all of the work it’ll take to relearn how to walk and train your muscles to rebuild.
Treatment for a broken or fractured knee depends on the severity of the break and how much other damage is done to the tendons, muscles, and ligaments. Often a cast or splint may be enough when combined with physical therapy and occupational therapy. However, sometimes surgery may be required.
In fact, if screws and pins are used to hold things together, a second surgery may be required down the road to remove them as well. Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about all options when suffering from a fractured or broken bone.
Arthritis describes swelling, inflammation, and tenderness in one or more joints. It most often affects the fingers, knees, and hips, and it often follows a traumatic joint injury. Gout, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis are different forms of affliction, and each has a different cause.
Any form of arthritis can greatly impact your knees, and it can accompany even more serious conditions, like lupus or infection. Arthritis pain can lead to reduced quality of life and mobility, along with weight loss, rash, and breathing problems.
Although it may not fully lock your knees up, arthritis can cause a lot of discomfort and pain. It can also be a precursor to other serious knee injuries, causing weakness in tendons, ligaments, and muscles within and supporting your knee.
There are several treatments for arthritis, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), counterirritant creams and ointments, corticosteroid medications, and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). In some cases, joint surgery may be necessary.
Regardless of which injury your knee is suffering from, there are some methods to take toward rehabilitating it.
Avoiding an Injured Knee
Knee injuries are unfortunately common, but there are steps we can take to prevent them.
For starters, it’s important to maintain a healthy weight and avoid unnecessary weight gain. This extra weight puts more burden on your knees, causing them to lift a heavier load and increasing the risk of injury.
You should also be sure you’re wearing the proper equipment during training and competition. This includes everything from protective gear to wearing shoes that properly fit your feet. This ensures you have perfect body alignment and are protected from any potential physical trauma or injury.
Focusing on warmups before any time of strenuous activity is also a key ingredient to proactive knee care. Stretching muscles in the front and back of your thighs decrease tension on your knee tendons. Also, be sure to incorporate exercises that improve your pain-free knee ability.
When doing weight training, focus on your leg muscles. They will ultimately support your knees and building these muscles will be beneficial to your overall health.
Recovering from a Knee Injury
Despite all your efforts to prevent it, you can still suffer from a knee injury. Unexpected accidents happen, and if it does, you should be prepared to correct and rehabilitate your knee. Individual treatments (both surgical and non-surgical) are listed above, but there are a few things that remain consistent for any type of knee injury.
Rest is one of the most important ingredients in recovering from any injury. It may be tempting to force yourself to get healthy so you can get back on the field, but our body simply doesn’t work that way. Taking a break from the repetitive strain caused by your usual activities gives your knees time to recover from their injury.
Ice, heat, compression, and elevation can also be helpful throughout your road to recovery, especially in the early stages under the careful direction of your medical provider.
Depending on the severity, a knee injury can take anywhere from two weeks to a full year to recover. Sometimes these injuries come with long-lasting effects and can even permanently disable you if the proper actions are not taken. And complications can arise from the injury, or any surgery performed to rebuild it.
Make sure you speak directly with your healthcare provider about all treatment options. Take a holistic approach and focus on both your affected knee as well as your overall mobility and mental health state. A knee injury can be a traumatic event, and you must accept that you are injured but not forever broken.
Build a solid support structure of family and friends and involve whatever professional help you need on the road to recovery.
If you suffered a serious knee injury, it could derail your career and life. There’s no shame in admitting you are hurt, and you shouldn’t face the problem alone. Talk to your family and friends and have them focus on keeping you positive and setting realistic expectations for the future.
I’ve suffered a traumatic knee injury myself that ended my football career, so I’m fully aware of how it can affect your feelings of self-esteem and worth. If you need someone to talk to or would like a consultation, feel free to reach out and contact me with your questions and concerns.
You can also find a plethora of resources throughout this site to get you walking on the right road to recovery.