As one of the largest and most complex joints in the body, knees are prone to a variety of injuries and in rarer cases, infection.
Knee physical therapy can diminish the knee issues you’re experiencing, including pain, buckling, weakness, swelling, and popping. A physical therapist who specializes in knees can treat your knee condition using the safest and most effective treatments.
Knee physical therapy may eliminate knee pain and injury so that patients won’t need to seek risky treatments such as surgeries, medications, or injections.
Most knee troubles stem from weak muscles, poor flexibility, and poor mobility. A physical therapist will help you to restore strength, flexibility, and mobility into the knees to heal them for good.
Knee physical therapy can help with almost any knee condition and can rehabilitate the knees after surgery. This guide will cover everything you need to know about knee physical therapy, including:
What you can expect from knee physical therapy
Knee Physical Therapy for Pre-and Post-Surgery Rehabilitation
What to Expect at Your Initial Physical Therapy Appointment
How a physical therapist will determine the cause of your knee condition
Common knee injuries (& their symptoms) treated by physical therapists
Common Knee Physical Therapy Treatments
How to Get Started
What You Can Expect from Knee Physical Therapy
When you see a physical therapist, who specializes in knee conditions, you are in the care of an expert who knows everything there is to know about the knees. Physical therapists are certified healthcare professionals who can determine the cause of your knee troubles and give you the best type of treatment available to heal your knees.
Knee Physical Therapy for Pre- and Post-Surgery Rehabilitation
Are you preparing for knee surgery such as total knee arthroplasty/knee replacement? Knee physical therapy can help you recover from your surgery sooner.
Numerous research studies prove that knee physical therapy speeds up the rehabilitation process from knee surgery.
One of the most recent studies, involving 1,043 knee replacement patients, reveals that preoperative physical therapy significantly reduces recovery time post-operation. This means that if you’re preparing for knee surgery, you should consider pre-operative knee physical therapy in addition to post-operative physical therapy for the quickest recovery possible.
What You Can Expect at Your Initial Physical Therapy Appointment
During your initial appointment, your physical therapist will guide you through a physical examination, testing, and questions related to your knee problems. The questions and testing will help your physical therapist make an accurate diagnosis and pinpoint the cause of your knee troubles.
Many knee pain “treatments” focus on fixing the symptoms of knee problems rather than the cause. When only the symptoms are treated, your knee problems will likely return or worsen.
Physical therapists collect information from the initial appointment to determine and fix the cause of your knee pain. This cause-based approach will prevent reoccurring pain and promote happy, healthy knees.
Your physical therapist will ask you questions related to your injury during your initial visit.
One of the most important questions that your knee physical therapist will ask is: “what makes your injury better or worse?” Some injuries that have similar symptoms are distinguishable based on which movements and activities aggravate and reduce the pain/injury. Although certain injuries have similar symptoms, they may require different treatments.
Some factors that may worsen your knee pain include:
Going up and downstairs
Moving uphill or downhill
Bending the knees
Repetitive motion, such as walking or running
Long periods of sitting or standing
Some factors that may make your knee pain feel better to include:
specific physical activities (for example, swimming, which is considered a no-impact sport)
Your physical therapist will ask how long you’ve experienced the symptoms and/or pain. Knee injuries tend to worsen the longer that they are ignored or improperly treated. Ignoring or improperly treating your injury can lead to severe injury and increased healthcare costs.
If you’ve tried treatments for your knee condition, your physical therapist will want to know which treatments helped and which did not help.
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Many patients try treatments such as heat/cold packs, medications, rest, or surgery prior to visiting a physical therapist. Often, these treatments are not sufficient in healing the knee injury since they typically don’t fix the cause of the injury.
Your physical therapist can provide you a solution that prevents the knee problems from reoccurring.
You’ll undergo a physical exam during your initial visit so that your physical therapist can check for swelling or signs of physical deformity.
Range of Motion Test
Your physical therapist will guide you through movements and stretches that test your range of motion. Pain-causing knee stiffness is often due to poor range of motion in the knee or other areas in the body.
A goniometer (which is like a ruler for joints) might be pressed gently against your skin to measure your joints’ range of motion.
Functional & Muscular Strength Tests
Functional and muscular strength tests reveal how well you can physically function with your injury. You will perform various types of physical activities during these tests.
One way that your physical therapist may test your strength is to have you push inwards or outwards with your leg into his or her hands.
You will perform functional and muscular strength tests during the initial visit and routinely throughout your physical therapy program to assess the progression of healing.
Here’s a quick example of how a Doctor of Physical Therapy will try to detect the root cause of your knee injury or pain:
How Your Physical Therapist Will Detect the Cause of Your Knee Condition
Your physical therapist will use information from the initial questions and tests along with his or her observations to accurately detect the cause of your knee condition.
Often, knee conditions are not caused directly by injury in the knees themselves, but from issues in other parts of the body (such as poor mobility in the feet/ankles or weak muscles in the hips). This fact makes it tricky for non-physical therapists to diagnose and treat knee conditions.
Common Knee Conditions (& Their Symptoms) Treated by Physical Therapists
Below are some of the most common knee conditions treated by physical therapists.
Do you have any of the symptoms? A physical therapist will ensure you have a treatment plan that is specific to your condition and lifestyle.
ACL Tears (aka Anterior Cruciate Ligament Tears) occur most frequently during sports that involve jumping and rapidly changing directions (such as soccer, basketball, and football).
Athletes who suffer an ACL tear during sport usually hear a loud pop combined with immediate instability and pain in the knee, causing them to fall and grab their knee.
Signs & Symptoms of ACL Tears
A loud “popping” sensation in the knee coupled with pain and instability
Severe pain and inability to pursue physical activity
Rapid swelling around the knee
Loss of range of motion in the knee area
A lack of stability when bearing weight on the affected leg
Knee arthritis is a condition where the knee cartilage of the knee joint gradually wears away. Once the cartilage wears away complete, the underlying bone is exposed and can develop bony spurs that may cause knee stiffness, swelling, pain, clicking, or grating.
Signs & Symptoms of Knee Arthritis
Knee pain that occurs gradually and feels worse with long periods of inactivity (such as immediately upon waking up)
Knee pain that feels worse with weight-bearing activities such as walking/running, going up or downstairs, kneeling, and squatting
Warmth around the knee
Feeling of weakness in knees and muscles around the knees
Knee Meniscus Tear
A knee meniscus tear is a common knee injury among active adults and athletes. Sports that involve twisting, tackling, or suddenly changing directions put athletes at a higher risk of developing knee meniscus tears. Arthritis and aging can also increase the risk of knee meniscus tears.
Signs & Symptoms of a Knee Meniscus Tear
Pain when walking/running long distances
Popping, especially when climbing up or down stairs
Giving away or buckling
Locking (which occurs when the tear folds in on itself and blocks the full range of motion of the knee joint)
If the muscles surrounding the knee are weak, you may experience pain and discomfort that can prevent you from completing your normal activities. Knee joints bear a lot of our body weight, so normal activities can cause wear-and-tear that lead to weak muscles around the knees.
Some of the most common causes of knee weakness include arthritis, strains, sprains, torn cartilage, and a sedentary lifestyle.
Signs & Symptoms of Knee Weakness
Pain in and around the knee
Pain that worsens with activity, especially ones that require a repetitive bearing of weight such as walking, running, or going up and down stairs
Feeling of instability and weakness in and around the knee
Ligament Strain or Partial Tearing of the Ligament
Ligament is a type of connective tissue that connects bones that are in and around the joints. A ligament strain or partial tear is another injury that affects athletes who quickly change direction during sports.
Weak muscles and/or an ACL tear can lead to ligament strains or partial tearing.
Signs & Symptoms of Ligament Strain or Partial Tearing of the Ligament
Sudden pain that is usually accompanied by a loud “pop”
Swelling that begins within the first 24 hours of injury
Inability to bear weight on the affected leg, or pain when bearing weight on it
A sensation that the knee joint is “loose”
Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS)/Runner’s Knee
Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS) is a broad term used to describe pain around the patella/kneecap or front of the knee. Runners often call this condition “Runner’s Knee,” because the repetitive impact of long-distance running can cause this condition, which is characterized by pain in the kneecap.
Pain while bending the knee (such as when squatting or climbing stairs)
Pain with prolonged periods of inactivity
Crackling/popping sounds when straightening the knee, such as when standing up or climbing stairs
Pain that may change with different running/playing surfaces, attire/sports equipment, or activity intensity
After a knee operation/surgery, it may take time for the knees to regain stability, strength, flexibility, and mobility.
Physical therapists will help patients speed up their recovery process by designing a program that strengthens, stretches, stabilizes, and mobilizes the knees. Physical therapists can also ease post-operative pain and inflammation without side effects, invasive procedures, or pills.
One of the most common knee conditions is stiff knees. Stiff knees are usually caused by poor range of motion and lack of flexibility. Aging is one of the leading causes of decreased range of motion and stiffness in the knees. Stiff knees can have various causes, but a physical therapist is trained to identify and treat the causes.
Signs & Symptoms of Stiff Knees:
A feeling of stiffness or pain in or around the knees
Unable to extend the knee past 0 degrees or flex the knee past 110 degrees
Weakness in the knees
A feeling of instability in the knees
Common Knee Physical Therapy Treatments
Your physical therapist will construct a treatment plan that is unique to your knee condition and lifestyle. Many physical therapists use a custom combination of these treatments to treat knee conditions:
Many patients who have knee problems have trouble with bending, lifting, going up and down stairs, and playing their favorite sports. Physical therapists will provide you with functional exercises designed to help you function in normal activities, including sports, again.
The best physical therapists usually incorporate manual therapy into the treatment plan for knee conditions. This is a hands-on treatment where physical therapists can mobilize stiff joints that are causing knee problems and pain.
If tight muscles are the cause of your knee condition, the most advanced physical therapists can perform myofascial release, which is a special manual technique that breaks up the muscle tissues to reduce tightness and pain.
Sometimes, patients need proper education on how to squat, walk, and exercise properly, and which types of shoes they should and shouldn’t wear. Physical therapists will share their knowledge to help patients recover sooner.
Physical therapists will know how to properly tape the muscles around your knee if your muscles are weak and unconditioned. Taping will help retrain the muscles around the knee to optimally function.
Ready to Knock Out Your Knee Pain? Here’s How to Get Started:
Contacting a physical therapist is the best way to treat most knee injuries.
Physical therapy for knee pain is considered a first-line treatment for many knee conditions because it can help prevent unnecessary surgeries, medications, and invasive treatments.
Physical therapy for the knees can quickly alleviate pain and provide lasting benefits that other treatments can’t offer. Patients will leave with stronger, more flexible, and mobile knees that are less prone to reinjury.
Dr. Scott Gray is an internationally recognized and expert physical therapist specializing in sport, athletic, and back and neck injuries. He is the inventor of a revolutionary form of treatment called the GRAY METHOD. This type of treatment unlike others, addresses the CAUSE rather than just your SYMPTOMS with a full body approach. For more information on how to ease or overcome your injury, go to www.backinmotionsspt.com.