When to See a Doctor About Knee Pain

woman holding her knee in pain

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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 heals within a day or two with some rest and ice. But there are some clues that indicate more serious knee pain and injuries that may need to be seen by a doctor for a complete evaluation and treatment plan.

You should see a doctor for your knee pain if you have any of the following warning signs:

Pain Lasting More Than 48 Hours

If you have pain deep in the knee joint for more than a day or two you should get checked by a doctor. The knee joint isn't covered by muscle so pain here is rarely of muscular origin. Some of the causes of pain deep within the joint include an injury to the meniscus and to the cartilage that covers and supports the joint.

The meniscus is referred to as the shock absorber in the knee. It covers the ends of the leg bones to allow smooth flexion and extension of the knee during walking and running. If the meniscus tears, it not only limits the smooth range of motion of the joint, but it can cause 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.

If a child has knee pain, it should be checked out by a doctor to rule out Osgood-Schlatter Disease.

Swelling Lasting More Than 48 Hours

The first thing that happens after an acute injury is swelling around the site of the injury. When soft tissue is damaged, it swells or possibly bleeds internally. This swelling causes pain and loss of motion, which limits the use of the muscles or joints.

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 often causes pain, stiffness. It may produce 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, patella tracking injury, or dislocation. Dislocations should be seen no later than six hours after an injury to prevent permanent damage.

Instability or Reduced Range of Motion

Reduced range of motion can indicate significant internal swelling, as well as other joint injuries. If you have limited range of motion for more than a day, you should contact your doctor.

Any instability in the knee joint or any sensation that the knee may give out or collapse under you may suggest a ligament injury to the knee. The knee ligaments provide support and stability to the joint and instability; 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, you may want to 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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  • Knee Pain. Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003187.htm.