Physical Therapy for Knee Pain

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Physical therapy for the knees can help to decrease pain and increase strength. It can improve your mobility, making it easier to walk, stand up from a seated position, or use the stairs.

Senior woman suffering from pain in knees at home. Holding her knee and massaging with hands, feeling exhausted, sitting on sofa in living room. Close-up. Medications and pills on table
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Physical therapy for knee pain typically requires two or three sessions a week for several weeks.

At the initial visit, the physical therapist will evaluate your knee pain and develop a customized treatment plan. Physical therapy for the knees involves exercises, hands-on therapy, and treatments like ultrasound.

This article discusses physical therapy for knee pain. It explains how knee pain is evaluated and treated. It also provides tips for getting insurance approval for knee physical therapy.

Before Starting Knee Physical Therapy

Physical therapy for knee pain starts with an initial evaluation. After the assessment, your physical therapist will develop a customized treatment plan. This usually involves two or three sessions a week for several weeks.

Will Insurance Cover Knee PT?

Most insurance companies and Medicare cover physical therapy when medically necessary. However, it may be limited to a certain number of visits and specific providers.

Check your policy before setting up an appointment. You may be required to see a doctor for a prescription for physical therapy first.

Prior authorization may also be needed before you start treatment. This is often based on the initial evaluation.

Your insurance company may only approve a handful of visits at first. If that's the case, another evaluation will be needed before more sessions are approved.


Click Play to Learn All About Physical Therapy for Knee Pain

This video has been medically reviewed by Laura Campedelli, PT, DPT.

PT Evaluation for Knee Pain

This initial evaluation for physical therapy is used to determine a treatment plan—and for insurance approval when required.

Interview and Forms

You'll be given paperwork to fill out at your first appointment. The forms will include questions about your medical history and current pain.

The therapist will also ask questions about how the pain started, what aggravates it, and what, if anything, brings relief.

Rating Your Knee Pain

You will also be asked to rate your pain with different movements. This is often done using a scale of zero to 10, as follows:

  • No pain: 0
  • Mild pain: 1, 2, 3
  • Moderate pain: 4, 5, 6
  • Severe pain: 7, 8, 9, 10

Insurance companies often use pain rating scales to determine medical necessity. Treatment is usually approved for moderate to severe pain. If you rate your pain as mild, treatment may not be covered.

Assessing Your Movements

Other assessments used during the initial evaluation may include:

  • Gait evaluation: An examination of how you are walking. Physical therapists are trained to notice small changes in the motion around the knee during different phases of walking.
  • Palpation: This involves using the hands to touch various structures around the knee to feel for abnormalities or to assess if a structure is painful to touch.
  • Range of motion measurements: Range of motion refers to how far the knee is bending or straightening. The physical therapist may use special instruments to measure how your knee is moving to help direct treatment.
  • Strength measurements: There are many muscular attachments around the knee, and a measurement of strength can help determine if muscular weakness or imbalance is causing your knee pain.
  • Assessment of your balance: If your balance is impaired, excessive stress and strain may be directed to your knee and cause pain.
  • Girth or swelling measurements: Occasionally, swelling may occur in the knee joint after injury. A physical therapist may measure the amount of swelling to help direct treatment.
  • Special tests: Special tests are specific maneuvers performed around the knee to help determine which structure may be at fault and may be causing the problem.

PT Exercises for Knee Pain

Exercises are the primary tool for treating knee pain in physical therapy. Targeted exercises are used to help strengthen and improve the mobility of the knee.

Exercises your physical therapist may prescribe to help your knee pain include:

  • Quad sets and straight leg raises
  • Short arc quads
  • Exercises to strengthen your hips (Your hip muscles help control the position of your knees. Weakness here may cause knee pain.)
  • Lower extremity stretches
  • Balance exercises

Your therapist will tell you how often to perform your exercises at home and monitor your progress during treatment.

PT Therapies for Knee Pain

Treatment modalities used for knee physical therapy include:

When to See a Healthcare Provider for Knee Pain

Knee pain symptoms that warrant medical attention include:

  • Difficulty flexing or straightening the knee
  • Inability to bear weight on the knee
  • The joint appears misshapen or deformed
  • Knee buckles, locks, or makes clicking or grinding noises
  • Pain is accompanied by fever
  • Pain persists after three days of home treatment following an injury
  • Pain, swelling, numbness, tingling, or bluish discoloration extends to the calf below the sore knee
  • Severe pain, even at rest
  • Swelling, redness, or warmth around the knee

A Word From Verywell

The knee is a major joint in the body that is responsible for walking, climbing stairs, and rising from a seated position. Pain in the knee can limit one or all of these activities. By working with your physical therapist and by keeping the knee joint mobile and strong, problems with knee pain may be avoided, and your mobility can be maintained.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Boonstra AM, Stewart RE, Köke AJ, et al. Cut-off points for mild, moderate, and severe pain on the numeric rating scale for pain in patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain: variability and influence of sex and catastrophizingFront Psychol. 2016;7:1466. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01466

  2. Bunt CW, Jonas CE, Chang JG. Knee pain in adults and adolescents: the initial evaluation. Am Fam Physician. 2018;98(9):576–85.

  3. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Knee conditioning program.

  4. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Knee pain.

By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.