Knee Problems

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Pain, swelling, stiffness and "water" on the knee are common symptoms. Follow this chart for more information about knee problems, possible diagnoses and self-care.

SYMPTOMS DIAGNOSIS SELF-CARE
Begin Here

1. Did your knee pain or swelling begin after a fall, twisting injury, or after your knee was hit by an object or person?


No

Go to Question 7.*

Yes

2. Is your knee deformed?


Yes

Your knee may be FRACTURED and/or you may have seriously TORN some LIGAMENTS in the internal area of the knee.

EMERGENCY
See your doctor or go to the emergency room right away.

No

3. Is your kneecap swollen, tender and warm, and do you have pain with activity?


Yes

If you fell hard on your kneecap it may be FRACTURED. Otherwise, it may be bruised or you may have PREPATELLAR BURSITIS, an irritation of a small lubricating sac (called bursa) in front of the kneecap.

See your doctor.

No

4. Is your knee tender and swollen and does the pain get worse after sitting for a long time or after using the stairs?


Yes

Your symptoms may be from TORN CARTILAGE, a TORN LIGAMENT or CHONDROMALACIA PATELLAE, the softening of the ligament or cartilage underneath the kneecap.

See your doctor. Rest and anti-inflammatory medicine may help relieve the pain.

No

5. Do you have a sharp pain behind your knee and is it painful to stretch your leg?


Yes

You may have a TORN HAMSTRING MUSCLE.

Apply ice to the area and use an anti-inflammatory medicine. You may also wrap your thigh with an elastic bandage. Keep the injured leg elevated. See your doctor if there's excessive swelling or pain.

No

6. Do you still have a grinding feeling in your joint or does it ever lock even after your knee pain is better?


Yes

This may be from TORN CARTILAGE.

Use an anti-inflammatory medicine and rest your knee. If you keep experiencing pain or if your knee becomes swollen, see your doctor.

No

*7. Is your knee swollen and/or red?


No

Go to Question 9.**

Yes

8. Do you have a fever along with swollen and/or red joints?


Yes

You may have RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS, but you may also have a more serious problem, such as RHEUMATIC FEVER.

URGENT
See your doctor as soon as possible. He or she will be able to tell what's causing your symptoms.

8. Do you have a fever along with swollen and/or red joints?


No

Your symptoms may be from GOUT.

Try an anti-inflammatory medicine. If your symptoms don't improve, see your doctor.


**9. Has your knee become tender over many months or years and does the pain get worse when the weather changes?


Yes

Pain and stiffness may be caused by OSTEOARTHRITIS.

Try an anti-inflammatory medicine. Applying heat to tender joints may also help relieve the pain. If your symptoms don't improve, see your doctor.

No

10. Is the back of your knee swollen?


Yes

The swelling may be from a BAKER'S CYST.

Try an anti-inflammatory medicine. If your symptoms don't improve, see your doctor.

No

11. Are you between 12 and 18 years old and do you have a pain below your kneecap that gets worse with activity?


Yes

You may have OSGOOD-SCHLATTER DISEASE.

Apply ice to the affected area and rest your leg. See your doctor if your pain is severe or if the swelling is excessive.

No

12. Are you younger than 18 years old and do you have knee pain?


Yes

You may have a hip problem that feels like knee pain.

See your doctor.

No
For more information, please talk to your doctor. If you think the problem is serious, call your doctor right away.  

This tool has been reviewed by doctors and is for general educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for medical advice. The information in this tool should not be relied upon to make decisions about your health. Always consult your family doctor with questions about your individual condition(s) and/or circumstances. Source: American Academy of Family Physicians. Family Health & Medical Guide. Dallas: Word Publishing; 1996.

See complete list of charts.