When to See a Doctor About Knee Pain

Most athletes will experience some knee pain from time to time. Overuse, long training days, or bumps and bruises from contact sports often result in minor knee pain that resolves within a day or two with some rest and ice.

woman holding her knee in pain
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However, some clues indicate more serious knee pain and injuries that may need to be seen by a doctor for a complete evaluation and treatment plan. Get to know the warning signs so you don't put off necessary treatment.

Watch for:

  • Pain that lasts more than 48 hours
  • Swelling that lasts more than 48 hours
  • Instability or reduced range of motion

Pain for More Than 48 Hours

If you have pain in the knee joint that prevents you from walking normally for more than a day or two you should get checked by a doctor.

Some of the causes of pain deep within the joint include abnormalities of the meniscus or cartilage that covers and supports the joint.

The meniscus is referred to as the shock absorber of the knee. The cartilage covers the ends of the leg bones to allow smooth flexion and extension of the knee during walking and running.

Abnormalities of either the meniscus or cartilage can not only limit the smooth range of motion of the joint, but it may contribute to a feeling of deep knee pain.

Beyond the pain itself, a meniscus tear will often cause a popping sensation (sometimes audible) and may make it feel as if your knee is locked in place when you try to move it.

Swelling for More Than 48 Hours

The first thing that can happen after an acute injury is swelling around the site of the injury.

When the knee is injured, it can swell as a result of inflammation or possibly bleeding into the knee joint. This swelling can causes pain and loss of motion, which limits the use of the knee.

Swelling is usually obvious and can be seen, but occasionally you may just feel as though something is swollen even though it looks normal.

Swelling within a joint can cause pain and stiffness. It may sometimes lead to a clicking sound as the tendons snap over one another after having been pushed into a new position from the swelling.

If the knee looks deformed or misaligned, don't delay in seeking treatment. It could be a sign of a fracture or dislocation. These injuries should be evaluated and addressed in a timely fashion to address the source of injury and prevent long term effects.

Instability or Reduced Range of Motion

Reduced range of motion can be related to swelling in the knee, as well as other joint injuries. If you have limited range of motion that does not begin to improve within a few days, you should contact your doctor.

Instability in the knee joint or a sensation that the knee is bending or moving in the wrong direction may suggest a ligament injury to the knee.

The knee ligaments provide support and stability to the joint; if they are stretched or torn due to an injury, instability is one of the most obvious warning signs.

A difference in your ability to support your full body weight on one leg, compared to the other, is another tip-off to an injury that requires attention.

A Word From Verywell

If you have any of these signs,see your primary care physician or a sports medicine specialist for a complete evaluation and treatment plan. Depending on the injury, you might be referred to an orthopedic surgeon

Prepare for your visit so you know the symptoms to report and the questions to ask to hasten your diagnosis and treatment.

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Article Sources
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  1. Patel DR, Villalobos A. Evaluation and management of knee pain in young athletes: overuse injuries of the knee. Transl Pediatr. 2017;6(3):190-198. doi:10.21037/tp.2017.04.05

  2. Song SJ, Park CH, Liang H, Kim SJ. Noise around the knee. Clin Orthop Surg. 2018;10(1):1-8. doi:10.4055/cios.2018.10.1.1

  3. Evans J, Nielson Jl. Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Knee Injuries. [Updated 2019 Mar 8]. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-. 

Additional Reading
  • Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia. Knee Pain. Updated September 16, 2020.