Knee pain is one of the most common complaints that bring patients to their doctor’s office. Even a minor problem can cause a great deal of pain initially, making it difficult to guess just how serious the injury is. Not every trauma ends up with a visit to the knee surgeon, but every injury should be treated with care until you’re certain no serious damage has been done.

Is Your Knee Swollen?

Some swelling immediately after an injury is normal and doesn’t necessarily always indicate a majorly serious injury. Swelling that doesn’t go down within the first 24 hours is a bigger concern. Swelling is sometimes caused by hemarthrosis. This is blood in the knee joint due to an internal tear. The bleeding stops on its own, but trapped blood in the tissues causes painful inflammation. If you have swelling that is extremely tender and painful or doesn’t get better within 24 hours, call your doctor.

Can You Walk?

Some knee injuries can “lock” the knee, making it impossible to either bend or fully extend the leg without a high level of pain. For example, a tear in the meniscus can flip into the middle of your knee joint and virtually lock the joint in a bent position. A dislocated knee cap (patellar dislocation), an ACL tear, or injury to the articular cartilage are some of the other serious injuries that could make it too painful to walk.

In some cases, rest and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories are the answer, but some injuries require the skill of a knee surgeon to properly heal. The sooner you get a proper diagnosis the sooner you will be on the track to full recovery.

Does Your Knee Feel Unstable?

If you can walk with little or no pain but your knee joint feels unsteady, as if it might collapse from your weight, you may have experienced a temporary patellar dislocation. Hearing a “popping” noise when you were injured is a common sign of a dislocation. Many times, a dislocated knee cap will spontaneously go back into place. The joint may feel strained and “wobbly” with a small amount of swelling.

An experienced knee surgeon such as Dr. Frank R Noyes of Noyes Knee Institute would say that patellar dislocations that do not spontaneously reposition can cause a great deal of pain. Your knee will swell and look deformed because the knee cap is out of its usual place. This can be a serious issue. This type of injury typically requires a trip to the emergency room to reset the patella. Surgery to repair tears in the tendon might also be necessary for a full recovery.

Is the Pain Getting Better?

Any pain that lasts longer than a few days should be taken seriously, especially if the pain began after an injury. Minor injuries usually resolve within the first 24 to 72 hours, but if pain or other symptoms are getting worse with time, calling your doctor is the best decision.

Should I Call a Knee Surgeon?

The first step in determining how to treat a knee injury is diagnostic testing. Your doctor may order a series of imaging scans to get a better idea of the problem or immediately recommend you to an orthopedist for specialized care. If you suspect your injury is serious, don’t hesitate to seek medical help. 

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