Navigation

Treatment options for knee pain – making a decision

Expert reviewer, Toby Giles, Bupa Senior Physiotherapist
Next review due February 2025

There are many different investigations and treatments for knee pain. It can be difficult to decide which, if any, is best for you. This information will help you and your healthcare team decide what’s right for you.

Doctor and patient are talking

Making a decision

The term ‘shared decision-making’ means that health professionals involve patients fully in decisions about their care. This is mainly to do with choosing treatments, but can also cover tests, investigations, support packages and self-care options.

Knee pain and the conditions that cause it can be long-term. Shared decision-making is important to ensure your condition is managed in a way that’s effective and that reflects your needs and preferences. This is because two people with the same knee injury may have very different goals and levels of activity. For example, a professional football player will have very different needs from someone who occasionally gets out on their bike for a ride. So, treatment options will need to vary to achieve the best outcome for each patient.

Assessment of knee pain

GP

If your knee is sore, you may decide to see your GP. Your GP will assess you to try and work out what’s causing the pain and if there’s anything medically wrong. For example, you may have an injury or osteoarthritis may be causing your knee pain. Your GP will examine both of your knees to see how your knee pain affects how you walk and how you move the affected leg.

As well as examining your knee, your GP will ask you about the history of your knee pain, any injuries you’ve had and your general health. They’ll also ask you how the pain affects your life, such as your ability to work, sleep or do hobbies.

Your GP will usually refer you to another healthcare service, depending on what they suspect the problem may be. In some situations, they’ll refer you to a specialist urgently. If you have a long-standing injury to your kneecap, for example, they may refer you to an orthopaedic surgeon.

Physiotherapy

Many knee injuries can be successfully treated with rest, support for the joint, ice and physiotherapy. So, if it’s unlikely that you have a problem that needs surgery or an urgent referral, your GP may refer you to a physiotherapist. As well as treating you, the physiotherapist will also assess you. They can then refer you on to an orthopaedic surgeon if your condition doesn’t improve or they diagnose a problem that needs surgery.

Investigations

If you’ve been referred to a specialist to investigate your knee pain, there are various procedures you may have to look into this further. Your doctor should consider your preferences, as well as the medical risks and benefits, and involve you in decisions about investigations. Some examples of investigations for knee pain are given below. Your doctor will explain the risks and benefits of these investigations in more depth and answer any questions you have.

X-ray and CT (computerised tomography) scan

CT scans and X-rays are painless and are generally quite safe. But they do involve exposure to radiation, which has very small health risks. For one-off scans, the benefit of the investigation will often outweigh this risk. But if you have long-term problems with your knee, it may be best not to have repeated scans.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan

An MRI scan doesn’t use any radiation. But it can be a claustrophobic and lengthy experience, which some people find uncomfortable. You might not be able to have an MRI scan if you have a pacemaker or some other devices or metal implants, but some hospitals have the facilities for this. Let your doctor and radiographer know if you think you have any medical devices or implants.

Ultrasound scan

Ultrasound scans use sound waves to create images. An ultrasound is painless and is considered to be safe.

Invasive investigations

Invasive investigations include procedures like aspiration and knee arthroscopy. They’re generally safe, but there are very small risks of infection and damage to the area.

Self-help for knee pain

If you have a minor injury, you may be able to manage it at home. Your doctor or physio may recommend resting your leg, keeping it up when you can and using ice packs. It may also help to not do activities that cause the pain to come back or get worse (where possible). Talk to your doctor about what this will mean for your daily life, including work and hobbies.

We have more information about what to do when you first injure your knee and what not to do after your injury.

If you’re overweight, it may help to lose weight so you don’t put as much pressure on your knee joint in future. It would also help to do some regular exercise because this can help with long-term pain.

Treatment for knee pain

Lots of conditions can cause knee problems. The exact treatment and management options that you’ll need, will depend on the condition you have. The options are:

  • self-help (for more information see our section: Self-help for knee pain)
  • physiotherapy
  • medicines
  • surgery

You may need more than one of these options. Some of the things to consider are outlined here.

Physiotherapy

This is an important treatment for many knee injuries. The aim is to reduce pain and help your knee recover strength, stability, range of movement and overall function. Your physiotherapist will work closely with you to create a programme that best suits your needs. Let them know about your usual physical activity – for example, if you play any sports. They’ll discuss your options to help you return to your usual routine. You’ll also need to think about how much time you can set aside for appointments.

Medicines

The main groups of medicines you can take for knee pain are painkillers and anti-inflammatories. Your doctor will explain potential side-effects such as irritation of your stomach when you discuss your treatment. You’ll need to balance your willingness and ability to cope with side-effects against the benefits of the medicines. You may have these medicines as tablets or gels or as an injection.

If you have an injection, your doctor will inject a medicine called a corticosteroid into your knee to help reduce inflammation and pain. These injections can have side-effects and the beneficial effects may not last long, so have a chat with your doctor about whether or not this is a good option for you.

Surgery

If you have a severe injury to your knee or other treatments haven’t worked, you may need surgery. You may need surgery straightaway if, for example, you have a job where your knee stability is important or you play a lot of sport.

During your consultation with your doctor, you can discuss your priorities and preferences. You can reach a decision together about if and when surgery may be the best option for you.

Frequently asked questions

  • Lots of conditions can cause knee problems so the treatment and management options that are best for you will depend on what’s caused your knee pain. Treatments include self-help (for example, resting your leg and using ice packs), physiotherapy, medicines and surgery. You may need more than one of these.

    For more information, see our sections: Self-help for knee pain and Treatment for knee pain.

  • You could try resting your leg, keeping it up when you can and using ice packs. There are also painkillers and anti-inflammatory medicines you can take for pain and swelling. If the pain is very bad, you could consider having a corticosteroid injection into your knee to help reduce swelling and pain.

    For more information, see our sections: Self-help for knee pain and Treatment for knee pain.

  • To treat knee pain at home, rest your leg by propping it up on a cushion and putting an ice pack on it. It’s best not to do any activities that cause the pain to come back or get worse (wherever possible). If it doesn’t get better or you have questions or concerns, see your GP or make an appointment to see a physiotherapist.

    For more information, see our section: Self-help for knee pain.

  • A physiotherapist may be able to help you if you’re a runner with knee pain. Physiotherapy is an important treatment for many knee injuries. It aims to reduce pain and help your knee recover strength, stability, range of movement and overall function. Your physiotherapist will create a programme that best suits your needs.

    For more information, see our section: Treatment for knee pain.



Did our information help you?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our health information.


About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. This is because we believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and wellbeing.

Our information has been awarded the PIF TICK for trustworthy health information. It also follows the principles of the The Information Standard.

The Patient Information Forum tick

Learn more about our editorial team and principles >

Related information

  • Discover other helpful health information websites.

    • About shared decision making. NHS England. www.england.nhs.uk, accessed 19 January 2022
    • Assessment of knee injury. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last updated 6 August 2020
    • Personal communication, Toby Giles, Bupa Senior Physiotherapist, 15 February 2022
    • Knee pain – assessment: how should I assess a person with knee pain? NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised July 2017
    • Treatment for knee pain. Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. csp.org.uk, last reviewed 26 March 2020
    • Getting help for knee pain. Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. csp.org.uk, last reviewed 26 March 2020
    • X-rays and their safety. British Institute of Radiology. www.bir.org.uk, accessed 19 January 2022
    • Computed tomography. Patient. patient.info, last edited 19 October 2021
    • Your X-ray test. Royal College of Radiologists. www.rcr.ac.uk, accessed 19 January 2022
    • Magnetic resonance imaging contraindications. Ghadimi M and Sapra A. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, last update 9 May 2021
    • Magnetic resonance imaging. Patient. patient.info, last edited 15 January 2018
    • Pieri C, Bhuva A, Moralee R, et al. Access to MRI for patients with cardiac pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators. Open Heart 2021; 8:e001598. doi: 10.1136/openhrt-2021-001598
    • Non-obstetric ultrasound scanning. Patient. patient.info, last edited 23 December 2021
    • Orthopaedics. Oxford Handbook of Operative Surgery. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published online May 2017
    • Anterior knee pain. Patient. patient.info, last edited 24 May 2021
    • Knee pain. Versus Arthritis. versusarthritis.org, accessed 9 February 2022
    • Medial collateral ligament injury. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed 20 December 2021
    • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. NICE British National Formulary. bnf.nice.org.uk, last updated 17 December 2021
    • Ibuprofen. NICE British National Formulary. bnf.nice.org.uk, last updated 17 December 2021
    • Corticosteroids, inflammatory disorders. NICE British National Formulary. bnf.nice.org.uk, last updated 17 December 2021
    • Corticosteroid injections of joints and soft tissues. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated 15 January 2020
    • Anterior cruciate ligament injury. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed 20 December 2021
    • Knee ligament injuries. Patient. patient.info, last edited 15 February 2017
  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, February 2022
    Expert reviewer, Toby Giles, Bupa Senior Physiotherapist
    Next review due February 2025

ajax-loader