Solving your knee pain problems

Accurate diagnosis and appropriate care of knee pain can lead to a good recovery.

Malaysians are getting increasingly active as the benefits of sports and exercise for general health and chronic disease control becomes apparent.

Sports and exercise no longer remain the bastion of the younger set, with older age groups getting increasingly involved. The term "recreational athlete" was coined particularly to refer to the weekend athlete who exercises at a more social or leisurely level, though not less competitively.

Whether it is the young elite athlete, the older athlete, or the recreational athlete, knee pain is a common complaint found in sports' forums and discussion groups.

Fortunately, knee pain can be well managed by understanding the possible causes, particularly those causing the most potential damage, scenarios in which immediate medical attention is prudent, and most importantly, preventive strategies to avoid recurrences.

Causes of knee pain are multiple and varied. They differ between younger and older patients. Common causes in the young active person usually involve the ligaments, meniscus and tendons - both occurring after an acute injury or through overuse of the knee. In older patients, arthritis is a common cause - both degenerative arthritis or traumatic.

Knee pain produces mind-boggling symptoms for patients and clinicians alike. For a treatment to be effective, an accurate diagnosis is crucial. This requires accurate clinical history, thorough physical examination and appropriate imaging.

More often than not, the clinical history points to the most obvious diagnosis.

Pain occurring acutely after sporting activity often points to a ligament, cartilage or meniscal injury. Knee swelling often confirms this diagnosis. Associated symptoms of instability - often described as a wobbly knee - denotes severe injury and warrants immediate specialist consultation.

The inability to straighten the knee adequately is also a worrying symptom (the locked knee), and is a surgical emergency.

Knee pain progressing and worsening over a longer duration, especially in the older age group, particularly if associated with stiffness during inactivity, points to arthritis as a possible cause of the problem.

Pain associated with stair-climbing or standing up from a seated position suggests the patella femoral (knee-cap joint) as the target pain generator.

Inability to place one's weight (weight-bearing) on the painful limb warrants immediate medical attention.

In children, any type of knee pain would warrant an early visit to the treating physician.

It is also prudent to keep in mind that knee pain can even result from problems of the lower back or hip joint.

A physical examination of the patient is carried out to evaluate the severity of the knee pain or injury, confirm the structures involved, and rule out possible associated conditions that may modify treatment decisions.

Imaging is guided by a clinical diagnosis and is best done after history-taking and clinical evaluation. Radiographs are particularly effective in picking up fractures, evidence of overuse injuries, and arthritis. Magnetic resonant imaging (MRI) allows for better delineation of cartilage, ligament and meniscal pathology.

Management of knee pain depends on diagnosis. Self-care techniques can be undertaken if the injury is mild.

General care

Immediate care strategies include:

1. Rest - to prevent worsening of pain.

2. Cryotherapy - the use of cooling techniques, which aids pain relief and reduces any associated swelling.

3. Compression of the knee with a bandage - this offers some support to the knee.

4. Elevation of the affected knee - keeping the knee above the level of the hip.

5. Simple analgesics such as paracetamol at regular appropriate doses.

Pain that is not resolving/getting better within the first 24 hours warrants a medical consult. Guidelines have been created to suggest immediate medical consultation in the following instances:

1. Persistent knee swelling in spite of appropriate rest and care.

2. Instability symptoms - signifying possible major ligament injury.

3. Locking of the joint.

4. Inability to bear weight.

5. Knee pain in children.

6. Additional systemic signs such as fever, loss of appetite, etc, which may signify an infection.

Specific management of common causes of knee pain

Meniscus

A torn meniscus is a common cause of knee pain. It occurs both in the young and old, particularly following a sports injury, or in the older patient, as a degenerative tear in arthritis. It is at times associated with knee swelling or a locked knee.

Treatment in the young is generally operative. If picked up early, the meniscus is repairable with minimally invasive (key-hole) surgical techniques. When not repairable, the torn part is resected.

A degenerative tear can be initially managed with pain relief and guided rehabilitation, including graduated weight-bearing, and passive and active movements. Surgery may still be needed when the degenerative tear is large and presents with mechanical effects, like knee locking.

Improvement is indicated by cessation of swelling and pain; this permits a continuance of conservative non-operative care.

Postoperative rehabilitation is of utmost importance for optimum recovery, and includes soft tissue management - care of swelling, progressive range-of-motion exercises, and graduated weight-bearing where appropriate.

Collateral ligaments

The collateral ligaments are usually injured in a "twisting" injury. When mild, they present with pain over the sides of the knee, although severe injury can present with instability.

Severe injuries warrant surgical repair and reconstruction, particularly that of the outer knee. Injuries on the inner knee, particularly if isolated, heal well with brace support and structured rehabilitation.

Cruciate ligaments

The anterior cruciate ligament is one of the most common ligament injuries. Management techniques are evolving, and advances, particularly in surgical techniques and rehabilitation, are rapid.

Excellent results occur when reconstructive surgeries are done well, with a target return to sports within six months being very much achievable.

High demand patients - the young and the athletic (both the elite and the weekend warriors) - benefit from surgery, and that option must be strongly considered for them.

Not all patients with anterior cruciate ligament ruptures are candidates for surgery, with the more sedentary group of patients doing reasonably well following a non-surgical rehabilitation programme.

Treatment of the posterior cruciate ligament is conservative on the outset, particularly when isolated. Surgery is considered when symptoms of instability or pain persist despite completion of a rehabilitation programme.

Cartilage

The old adage "cartilage, once destroyed is never replaced" is no longer easily accepted in modern orthopaedic care. Genetic engineering has spurred cartilage injury healing to the forefront of medical research, bringing about rapid change in care techniques.

Surgical results for treatment of larger and painful lesions have improved with newer techniques becoming available to the treating physician.

Osteoarthritis

Once labeled a degenerative disease, osteo-arthritis is now postulated as a disease of cartilage overload. Multimodal therapeutic strategies are available, and treatment should be individualised from patient to patient.

Treatment options include nutriceuticals such as glucosamine and chondroitin, newer immunomodulator drugs, intraarticular injections of viscosupplements, and stimulant substances, including stem cells and minimally invasive techniques.

Joint replacement - whether partial or total - is a solution for advanced diseases to allow for a pain-free stable joint.

Knee pain continues to excite and baffle clinicians. Accurate diagnosis and appropriate care brings about good recovery. It is necessary to individualise treatment from patient to patient to allow for optimum recovery. Minimally invasive techniques have resulted in less tissue trauma in care and speedy recovery and return to pre-disease level of activity.

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