Simon Brossier, DPT
Orlando Health

Pain and swelling in your knee –one of the body’s most often injured joints – can have a wide range of causes, both traumatic and nontraumatic. Figuring out the root of your discomfort can be a challenge, since the symptoms are often the similar, regardless of the underlying cause.

Among the most common culprits are arthritis and torn meniscus. Both can cause a buildup of fluid in and around the knee joint.

For most people, determining the difference between these two afflictions is difficult, if not impossible. Often, it requires a visit to your primary care physician or an orthopedist to get an accurate diagnosis.

Still, there are some telltale signs that could suggest what is causing your pain.

Arthritis in the Knee

Arthritis is inflammation of the joint, and osteoarthritis is the most common type found in the knee. Symptoms often appear after the age of 50 and could slowly erode the thin layer of cartilage that protects and cushions the bones found in your knee joint.

As that cartilage wears away, you lose that protective layer, which narrows the joint space. Your body responds to that irritation with a fluid buildup that causes swelling and further discomfort. Among the symptoms:

  • Swelling and stiffness in the joint make it difficult to move your knee
  • Symptoms are worse in the morning or after resting
  • Pain flares up after vigorous activity
  • You may feel a clicking or grinding in your knee, caused by loose pieces of cartilage
  • Your knee may feel like buckling because of the pain
  • Changes in the weather may cause increased pain

What Is a Meniscus Tear?

A meniscus tear is one of the most common injuries to the knee. There are two menisci found there that serve as shock absorbers in the joint, helping distribute your weight and stabilize your knee. These menisci can be damaged by injury (common in sports) or degeneration over time. The older you get, the more likely it is that you will tear a meniscus. Symptoms may include:

  • Pain in your knee
  • Stiffness and swelling
  • Your knee locks or feel like it catches
  • Feeling like your knee is about to collapse
  • Difficulty moving your knee through its full range of motion

How To Treat

Treatment for the two conditions is often similar in the early stages, relying on over-the-counter medications and physical therapy. This conservative approach might allow you to manage your symptoms and return to your prior level of function without surgery.

With physical therapy, the focus is on finding the impairment in the knee that’s causing the loss of range of motion. Exercises and therapies can target those problem areas – working to improve strength and your ability to bend or straighten the knee.

There’s no definitive program for eliminating the risk of knee problems. But there are actions you can take to boost your chances of avoiding them.

Start by getting involved in some type of strength training program that works on the major muscle groups of your legs, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calves. Meniscus tears are often the result of injuries that are outside or anyone’s ability to control. But having stronger legs can reduce your risk and keep you better prepared for day-to-day activities.

Also focus on some form of aerobic exercise, aiming for at least two and a half hours a week. This will help you from a cardiovascular standpoint, while also boosting your overall health – which may make you less vulnerable to the onset of arthritis and other preventable conditions.

If you are having issues with your knees, don’t hesitate to have them checked out. The sooner you get started, the better your chances are at preserving your long-term health and mobility.