Henry Ford Health System

Health & Safety

When Can I Walk Off Knee Pain — And When Should I See A Doctor?

By Henry Ford Health

June 7, 2022

Henry Ford Health System

Whether you wake up with a stiff knee, sustain an injury, or start feeling knee pain for seemingly no good reason, you might wonder what to do. Should you immediately rush off to the doctor? Can you just ignore it and hope it will get better? Can you treat it yourself? Knowing when you need a doctor’s intervention can be a tricky decision to make.

We see people at the start of injuries and after they’ve been ongoing,” says Nancy White, M.D., a sports medicine physician at Henry Ford Health. “While the sooner you see an expert, the better, there’s really no right or wrong to it. However, there are a few key signs that it’s a good idea to get it checked out.”

Dr. White recommends seeing a doctor if:

You are waking up with consistent knee stiffness. If there’s no history of an injury involved, it could be due to osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.

If your knee pain isn’t going away.

Your knee is swollen and you can’t bear weight on it.

You can’t fully flex or extend your knee.

Your knee is warm to the touch. This could signal inflammation.

If your pain is mild — or you’re trying to decide whether to see someone — Dr. White recommends icing it on a scheduled basis. “That means two to three times a day,” she says. “Apply the ice to your knee. It will get cold. It will burn, then it will get numb. Remove the ice when it gets to the numb stage.” 

She also recommends elevating your leg and putting a compression wrap or sleeve on your knee. If the pain is bad, you can try taking ibuprofen or naproxen for a few days.

Common Causes of Knee Pain

But if your knee is not getting better, it’s a good idea to see a doctor, as common causes of knee pain include: 

► ACL sprains and tears. Short for anterior cruciate ligament, the ACL is one of four ligaments in the knee that allows it to flex and extend. The ACL can tear when your foot is firmly planted in place, and the knee locks and twists or pivots at the same time.

► MCL sprains and tears. Short for medial collateral ligament, the MCL connects your shinbone to your thighbone. It can tear when landing after a jump, or after an exterior blow to the knee (usually during contact sports). Luckily, most MCL injuries heal on their own.

► Meniscal tears. The menisci are your knee’s shock absorbers; they're two discs made of soft cartilage. Abrupt movements (like pivots, stops, turns, squats or lifts) can cause them to tear.

► Kneecap dislocation. A direct hit to the knee — or a sudden twist or pivoting of the leg — can make the kneecap can shift out of place. 

► Patellar tendonitis. This is also known as Jumper’s Knee, as it’s a common injury in basketball and volleyball players. The patellar tendon connects the bottom of the kneecap to the top of the shinbone, and can become inflamed from overuse, excessive force or repetitive stress. 

Knee bursitis. The bursa is a small, fluid-filled sac located near the knee joint. Knee bursitis occurs when the bursa becomes inflamed, often because of a knee injury or overuse from frequent kneeling. 

How to Help Prevent Knee Pain

And if you want to help prevent knee pain in the future? “Exercise regularly so that you’re strengthening your quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscles,” says Dr. White. “It’s also important to stretch to increase quadricep and hamstring flexibility.”

Wearing shoes with sturdy soles and proper arch support can also help ease pain and issues you may already have, says Dr. White. “I would say the top reasons people get into trouble with their knees are things they could prevent by changing lifestyle habits. This includes maintaining a healthy weight, as being overweight can also lead to increased wear and tear on the joints.

To learn more about your orthopedic condition or to find a provider, visit henryford.com/ortho.

Dr. Nancy White is a sports medicine physician at Henry Ford Health. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Novi, and Henry Ford Medical Center — Bloomfield Township.