Knee problems

Knee problems can cause a range of symptoms including:

  • pain
  • stiffness
  • swelling

In many cases, new pain or a flare-up of long-standing knee problems should begin to settle within 6 weeks without the need to see a healthcare professional.

When to seek help

Urgent advice: Phone 111 if:

  • there's been new significant trauma within the last 7 days, for example a fall from height or direct blow to the knee
  • your knee is misshapen following a new injury
  • you can't put any weight at all through your leg
  • your knee becomes immediately swollen after a twisting injury

Non-urgent advice: Contact your GP , or phone 111 if your GP practice is closed, if:

  • your knee locks or gives way
  • your knee is hot, swollen or tender - especially if you can't recall an injury

What causes knee problems?

Knee problems are common and can be caused by:

  • injury
  • growth spurts
  • normal age-related changes

As you get older, normal age-related changes can cause your knee problem to flare-up now and again, often for no reason.

Can knee pain cause problems anywhere else?

You may feel some pain in your hip, or the muscles around your thigh or lower leg. This should improve as your knee problem gets better.

Self-help

There are a number of things you can do to help your knee problem.

Keeping your body moving is an essential part of your treatment and recovery.

How to get moving

Within the first 24 to 48 hours after your knee problem has started you should try to:

  • reduce your activities but move as much as your symptoms allow
  • put your leg in an elevated position, when resting
  • move your knee gently for 10 to 20 seconds every hour when you're awake
  • avoid long periods on your feet

When using stairs it may help to:

  • lead with your good leg when going upstairs to reduce the strain on your knee
  • lead with your problem leg when going downstairs to reduce the strain on your knee
  • use a handrail (if available) when going up and downstairs

After 48 hours:

  • try to use your leg more - exercise really helps your knee and can relieve pain
  • do whatever you normally would and stay at, or return to work - this is important and is the best way to get better

It's beneficial to do specific exercises that can help in your recovery. They may be challenging at the beginning so just do what you can and try to build it up over time.

Exercises to help with knee problems

Benefits of keeping active

Keeping active's the single best thing you can do for your general health.

Being physically active can:

  • maintain your current levels of fitness – even if you have to modify what you normally do, any activity is better than none
  • keep your other muscles and joints strong and flexible
  • prevent a recurrence of the problem
  • help you aim for a healthy body weight

Avoid sports or heavy lifting until you have less discomfort and good movement. Remember to warm up fully before you start sporting activities.

Pain treatments

The following can help to reduce the pain:

  • pain medication - this can help you move more comfortably, which can help your recovery
  • heat or ice packs

More about taking painkillers.

Treating with ice or heat

Heat or ice can be beneficial in the management of musculoskeletal pain.

Ice is most beneficial if your knee problem is related to an injury. You can try heat to help your pain levels if there's no swelling and your symptoms are not related to a recent injury.

Never place ice or heat directly on your skin. Use a barrier, like a towel, to protect your skin from a burn.

How long you use ice as a treatment can vary. However, you should generally apply heat or ice for up to 15 minutes. You should also leave a few hours between treatments.

You should stop treating the area with ice or heat and seek advice from a medical professional if you notice an increase in redness, discolouration or blistering of the skin.

If you have any issues with circulation or sensation, you shouldn't use ice or heat as a treatment for knee pain.

Work

It's recommended you stay at or return to work as quickly as possible during your recovery. You don't need to be pain and symptom-free to return to work.

Help and support

Following this advice, you should see gradual improvements over time.

You should see the biggest change in your symptoms within the first couple of weeks. Most problems should have improved within 6 weeks.

If your knee problem hasn’t improved within 6 weeks of following this advice, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms.

Find out how to access MSK services in your area.

Last updated:
28 October 2022