Knee Pain Diagnosis

Author: Chloe Wilson - BSc(Hons) Physiotherapy

Accurate knee pain diagnosis is the first step in recovering from a knee problem so you can beat your pain and stop it from coming back again. Here, we will help you to work out what is causing your pain so you treat it effectively and make a quick recovery.

The most common reason for knee pain to recur is failure to treat the underlying cause of a problem. For example, let's say your knee is swollen. You can treat the swelling with ice, compression bandages, elevation and exercises and the swelling will most likely start to improve. But chances are, it will come back again unless you have identified what caused the swelling in the first place and also treated that. 

So how do we make an accurate knee pain diagnosis? Well, there are a few ways to you can approach it: You can think about: 

1) The Location of the Pain: where exactly your knee pain is e.g. front, side or back 
2) How the Pain Started: the mechanism of injury e.g. sudden twisting or gradual onset
3) Your Specific Symptoms: what are the main symptoms associated with your pain e.g. popping noises, locking

Here we will start by looking at using the location of the pain and how it started to help you work out what your problem might be and what you can do to treat it. Choose the area that best describes you and then use the links to find out all about your problem and the causes, symptoms and treatment options for each type of knee pain diagnosis. We will then go on to look using your knee symptoms to work out what is wrong.

1. Diagnosis by Pain Location

People often find the simplest place to start with knee pain diagnosis is to think about where their pain is in the knee. While pain can refer to and from other places, thinking about where the majority of the pain is coming from can help with working out what has gone wrong.

Thinking about the location of the pain is a useful tool in knee pain diagnosis.

The front of the knee is the most common place to get knee pain, commonly referred to as anterior knee pain. It can be caused by a number of knee problems, often related to the kneecap.

Visit the Front Knee Pain diagnosis section to find out what problems cause pain here.

Medial knee pain is pain on the inner side of the knee joint

Medial Knee Pain is extremely common. More force tends to go through the inner side of the knee (side closest to the other leg) which makes it prone to injury.

If your pain is mostly on the inner side of your leg, browse the Medial Knee Pain diagnosis section.

Pain behind the knee is often caused by swelling from a knee injury

Pain at the back of the knee is most common in the over 50’s from wear and tear conditions. In younger people it tends to be due to an injury. 

If your pain is mostly behind your knee, visit the Posterior Knee Pain diagnosis section to learn about the different causes and treatments.

Lateral knee pain is pain on the outer side of the knee

The outer side of the knee is the least common place to have problems. It is usually caused by irritation to the structures on the outer side of the knee.

If that is where your pain is, go to the Lateral Knee Injury diagnosis section to find out about these three main causes.

Calf muscle pain below the knee may be from a soft tissue injury or a sign of a more serious underlying condition

Calf pain may be caused by soft tissue damage such as a muscle tear or something more serious such as a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) - a blood clot in the leg.

In the Calf Pain section we look at the most common causes of pain in the calf region, how they vary, how to tell if it's serious and how to treat them.

X-ray showing a fracture of the kneecap

Huge forces go through the kneecap during everyday activities e.g. stairs and squatting.  Knee cap pain may come on gradually, or suddenly from an injury.  

Visit the Knee Cap Pain section to find out more about the different causes, symptoms and treatment options for patella problems. 

2. Diagnosis By How the Pain Started

Another important part of knee pain diagnosis is knowing whether the problem started suddenly, which usually indicates a specific knee injury, or whether it came on gradually over time for no specific reason, which usually indicates an underlying knee condition.

1) Twisted Knee

A twisted knee often results in ligament injuries

A twisted knee is one of the most common way the joint gets injured.  This type of injury most commonly occurs during sports or by falling awkwardly.  Depending on how the knee twists, it places stress through different structures of the knee so accurate knee pain diagnosis is vital.

Most commonly, it is the ligaments or cartilage that get damaged when the knee over-twists.  Ligament injuries tend to cause ongoing problems with stability and the knee may frequently give way even months after the initial injury. 

Cartilage injuries tend to cause pain and swelling, may limit knee movement and at times can cause the knee to get stuck. In more serious injuries, multiple structures may be damaged.

You can find out more about making an accurate knee pain diagnosis for these different injuries and how to treat them in the Twisted Knee section.

2) Hyperextended Knee

Knee hyperextension is a common sporting injury where the knee bends back too far, known as genu recurvatum. This can damage the knee joint and surrounding structures and results in knee pain, swelling and instability.

Knee hyperextension can cause various different knee problems

The knee ligaments are very strong and work together to keep the joint strong, but if the knee is suddenly forced backwards, the knee over-straightens back into hyperextension and the ligaments are put under considerable strain. This may be from a sporting tackle, landing awkwardly from a jump, coming to a sudden stop when running, or even something as simple as someone jumping on your back.

In the hyperextended knee section you can find out exactly what happens to the different knee structures when it hyperextends, help you to make an accurate knee pain diagnosis as to what you have done, the common symptoms, how to treat it and how to make a full recovery.

3) Pain Gradually Came On

This usually indicates an underlying problem that may have been there for a while without you realising. Sometimes, the knee will cope with a developing problem for so long, and then for no obvious reason will start being uncomfortable.

Visit the Common Knee Conditions section to find out about the most common problems that develop without a specific injury, including information on symptoms and treatments.

4) Sudden Knee Pain

Knee injuries are common in sports.

The knee is often injured by:

1) A force through the knee e.g. from a fall or a tackle or
2) Sudden deceleration e.g. stopping suddenly causing the leg to bend too far backwards
3) Twisting e.g. skiing

These most commonly result in injuries to the ligaments and/or cartilage. Pain is usually instant, or certainly comes on within 24-48 hours and may be accompanied by swelling and bruising. Visit the Common Knee Injuries section to find out more including symptoms and treatment options for different injuries to help you make an accurate knee pain diagnosis.

3. Diagnosis By Knee Symptoms

Another way to make a knee pain diagnosis is by thinking about your symptoms. Is there pain when you run, or bend, is the pain sharp or burning?

Sometimes people find it helpful to think about their specific knee symptoms. The pain may be quite widespread or move around, in which case, thinking about how the pain affects you, when you get it and what it stops you from doing might be easier for making a knee pain diagnosis.

There are a whole range of symptoms associated with knee pain e.g. swelling, giving way, pain when running, kneeling or bending, strange noises and loads more.

In the knee symptoms section we look at the most common symptoms associated with knee pain and what they mean.

More About Knee Pain Diagnosis

So here we have looked at how to make a knee pain diagnosis by the location or onset of the pain. You can find out everything you need to know about each of these by using the links above. You may not find the right things first time, but by using these tools, you will get there. But remember, the best way to get an accurate knee injury diagnosis is to see your doctor/physical therapist. 

If you have specific symptoms associated with your pain e.g. the pain is sharp or burning, or there is instability or swelling visit the knee symptoms guide. 

If you want to know how to get rid of your pain, visit the knee pain treatment section for a variety of treatment options.

Remember, the best way to get an accurate knee pain diagnosis is to see your doctor/physical therapist and it is essential to understand what is causing your pain to be able to treat it. 

Go to Knee Pain Guide


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