Knee injuries

The knee joint is constructed in such a way that it depends on several ligaments to maintain its integrity. The bony anatomy balances the femur, a knuckle shaped bone, on the tibia a fairly flat bone and on that rather unlikely surface we put all our weight, trusting that everything is secure.

Knee treatment

Thankfully, most of the time it is, due to the ligaments and the strength and coordination of the quadriceps muscles at the front of the thigh and the hamstrings at the back.

The surface of the joint is further deepened by two crescent shaped menisci or cartilages that sit on top of the tibia. This adds more stability to the joint and provides extra shock absorbance.

Ligaments are rather like tough elastic bands. Their job is to stop the joint from being moved too far. They have a relatively poor blood supply and therefore heal more slowly than other tissues such as muscle.

The main ligaments of the knee are as follows:-

  • Lateral ligament: this runs down the outer side of the knee and prevents over stretching of the outside of the knee
  • Medial ligament: this goes down the inner side of the knee and helps to prevent over stretching of the inner aspect of the knee.
  • Cruciates: There are two of these and they are in the middle of the knee between the knuckles of the femur. They prevent excessive gliding of the tibia in both a backward and forward direction. The two ligaments cross over within the joint, hence their name!

Mechanisms of injury

The commonest way to injure either ligament or cartilage is to have most of your weight on the leg with the knee bent and then to twist or be twisted forcefully. It is more common to sprain the medial than the lateral ligament. Pain is normally immediate with ligament injuries and the joint swells within a few hours. Cruciate injuries often involve a sudden deceleration or a slow sitting back manoeuvre, particularly common in skiing debacles. Menisci or cartilages are damaged in the same way as ligaments and injury can vary from a mild fissuring to major tears where a loose flap developes that blocks the joints' movement.

Immediate treatment of acute injuries

  1. Ice and elevation
    Put ice on for 15-20 mins, 3 times a day When using ice, the best way is to use ice cube bags. Wet a tea towel or piece of kitchen towel and put that around the knee first, followed by the ice. Wrap the whole lot with a dry towel and elevate the leg so that the foot is higher than the knee.
  2. Analgesia
    Use either as prescribed or begin with 2 paracetamol 4-6 hourly and seek medical advice if that is insufficient
  3. Exercise
    Some form of exercise should be started within 48 - 72 hours of injury because the thigh muscles will begin to weaken immediately.

The most simple exercise suitable for almost every injury is to lie with the leg outstretched and tighten the thigh muscle so pushing the back of the knee down onto the bed/couch etc. If this is impossible take two or three paper back books covered with a towel, put this under the knee and try again! Try to do at least 10 repetitions 3 hourly. If that is easy increase the number of repetitions until it isn't!

Keep using the ice until the swelling has almost gone. All the time there is significant swelling it will be impossible to bend the knee fully and the thigh muscles are inhibited from working properly.

It is vital to regain full muscle strength as soon as possible. The quadriceps on the front of the thigh are responsible for the dynamic stability of the joint. They prevent the knee from giving way, they are also superb shock absorbers and obviously the stronger they are the more efficient they are at performing this role. It is very important that specific exercises are done to regain strength. Walking is insufficient as a strengthening exercise. A physiotherapist will give you a progressive exercise regime suitable for you to do at home or even in the office!!


If some reparable damage is thought to exist an MRI will often be done first.

If a meniscus(cartilage) has been significantly damaged, the affected section will be removed to leave as smooth a surface as possible. The procedure is done via an arthroscope (keyhole) and is usually perfomed as a day case. Recovery is rapid and most people are back to their normal activities in 6 to 10 weeks - including most sports.

Torn cruciates are often repaired surgically. This happens if the knee is unstable despite intensive physiotherapy, or if the persons job or level of sportĀ  put particular strain on the joint.

A joint that has some arthritic change may improve by having the joint washed out and injected with either duralane or steroids. Whilst these can give good relief it will only ever be temporary

When a joint is severely affected by arthritis joint replacement is the only viable alternative. This needs to be viewed as a 12 MONTH project with specific exercises being done for at least 6-8 months. These should be altered as progress is made. Too many people merely keep doing exercises that are suitable for the first 6 weeks but insufficient to give substantial progress thereafter.

Following ALL these procedures physiotherapy is essential if the best outcomes are to be achieved.

Pain around the knee cap

This typically happens in the following situations:-

  • In young people aged between 12 and 24 who have often just undergone a sudden growth spurt and/or are excessively mobile.
  • In people who start from being very unfit and try to do too much too soon.
  • In people who have had enforced immobility e.g leg in plaster, hip or knee joint replaced and the muscles have become weak.

The pain is normally caused by a weakness in the quads which help controlĀ  movement of the knee cap combined with tightness in the iliotibial band (ITB). When the muscle is weak the knee cap is pulled by the ITB into a painful position which is made worse by certain movements e.g going down stairs /hills or sitting with the knees bent for a long tim.

A very effective treatment for this is a proper assessment by a physiotherapist who will then show you appropriate exercises and if necessary some specific taping techniques.

It is a common problem, but one that can be dealt with easily in the majority of cases.

The majority of knee problems benefit immensely from specific regular exercise. Some will resolve completely with this approach, particularly in the early stages when it will help prevent the development of more severe symptoms.

Read about more common conditions, or contact us to find out how we can help.