When knee pain occurs, it’s tempting to just live with the discomfort — and in many cases, that’s an acceptable course of action. “Eighty percent of the knee problems people have will resolve by themselves within a period of time,” says Robert Gotlin, DO, director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.
But in some cases of knee pain, it’s better to seek medical advice than to tough it out. If you’re aching but unsure whether to see the doctor, check out our list of signs that your knee pain needs professional help.
It seems obvious, but if the pain in your knee is preventing you from walking — or causing you to walk with a pronounced limp — then it could be a sign of a serious condition like a bone injury. A good rule of thumb is to consider how many lifestyle changes you’re making to accommodate the pain. “You should see a doctor when the knee is running your life, instead of you running the knee’s life,” Dr. Gotlin says.
If you notice that your knee pain is accompanied by sudden swelling, redness, or a warm feeling on the affected area, you should seek a doctor’s care. “That could be a sign of infection or something we call a ‘septic joint,’ meaning the fluid in your knee is not right,” Gotlin says. The bursa — the fluid-filled sac in the knee that helps cushion your joint — might be infected. Certain factors, like previous joint injuries or a wound on the knee, can increase one’s risk for this kind of infection. Infections can also cause fever, chills, and nausea, so be on the lookout for those symptoms, too.
Sometimes, knee pain can be caused by problems elsewhere in the body. Sciatica — a condition in which a disc in the lower back presses on a nerve — can cause pain down the leg through the knee, for example. Hip problems can also cause pain in the knee area, Gotlin says. If you’re unable to increase your pain level by pressing or touching your knee, your knee might not be injured at all — and you should consult your doctor to figure out what’s going on. “If you can’t make it hurt, it’s possible that the injury may have come from somewhere else,” Gotlin says.
Injuries like knee sprains can take a while to begin healing. When they occur, a good method of treatment is to rest the knee, ice and bandage it, and elevate it — a treatment method known as RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation). Over-the counter medications can also be used to help with the discomfort. But if these treatments are used and the pain doesn’t lessen or disappear after about three weeks, a doctor’s visit is probably in order. A sore knee that refuses to get better could point to a torn muscle or torn cartilage, which usually won’t get better without professional intervention. Or it may simply be a minor injury that needs a doctor’s care to improve. “Whatever it is, it’s an injury that the body can’t handle by itself,” Gotlin says. “It needs some outside help.”