Knee swelling, characterised by fluid build-up in or around the knee joint, is a common issue that can be caused by various factors. While it can result from traumatic injuries, such as sports-related incidents, it can also be linked to health conditions like arthritis. Understanding the causes and seeking timely diagnosis is crucial for effective treatment and prevention.

What Causes Knee Swelling?

Traumatic Knee Swelling:

This type of swelling typically occurs due to injuries, such as ACL tears, MCL tears, meniscus tears, hyperextended knees, sprains, fractures, dislocations, and patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS). If you’ve experienced any trauma, seeking medical attention immediately is important.

Non-Traumatic Knee Swelling:

Non-traumatic knee swelling is often associated with arthritis. Degenerative arthritis (osteoarthritis) and inflammatory arthritis (such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis) can lead to swelling. Additionally, other health conditions like autoimmune disorders, infections, bursitis, and tendinitis can also cause knee swelling.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you encounter knee swelling after an injury, it’s essential to visit a healthcare provider promptly. For non-traumatic swelling, initial at-home treatment can be effective. Rest and avoid activities that strain the knee, while over-the-counter pain medications like NSAIDs or acetaminophen can help alleviate pain and reduce inflammation. Remember to consult a healthcare provider before using pain relievers for more than ten consecutive days.

The RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) is beneficial for managing knee swelling:

  • Rest: Avoid stressing the injured knee during the healing process.
  • Ice: Apply a cold compress or ice packs wrapped in a thin towel for 15 minutes several times a day.
  • Compression: Use an elastic bandage to help reduce swelling.
  • Elevation: Prop up your knee and leg above heart level whenever possible.

Depending on the specific injury or health condition, healthcare providers may suggest additional treatments such as crutches, knee braces, physical therapy, or corticosteroids.

Surgery for knee swelling is generally rare, but in cases of severe damage like a torn ligament or meniscus, a knee arthroscopy may be necessary. Knee replacement surgery (arthroplasty) is considered for individuals with arthritis that significantly impacts daily activities and when other treatments have not provided relief.

Preventing Knee Swelling: To reduce the risk of knee injuries during sports or physical activities, follow these safety tips:

  • Use proper protective equipment.
  • Avoid pushing through pain during exercise.
  • Allow sufficient time for rest and recovery after intense activities.
  • Always warm up and stretch before physical activity and cool down afterward.

General safety measures at home and work can also help prevent injuries and reduce the likelihood of knee swelling. Ensuring clutter-free spaces, using proper tools, and using assistive devices like canes or walkers if needed are essential precautions.

When to Seek Medical Attention

Consult a healthcare provider if you experience a traumatic injury or if at-home treatments fail to improve non-traumatic swelling within a few days. Seek emergency medical care if you encounter severe pain, inability to move the knee, or a major trauma, like a fall from height or a car accident.

Remember, it’s vital not to ignore persistent swelling or related symptoms. Seeking medical guidance can help identify the cause, provide appropriate treatment, and offer preventive strategies for the future. Stay proactive about your knee health to maintain an active and pain-free lifestyle.

This article ” Knee Swelling in Adults: Causes and Diagnosis ”  does not provide medical advice and is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult a doctor for all medical advice. 

Meet Dr Peter Smith, a leading Orthopaedic Surgeon operating from the Mediclinic Milnerton in Cape Town, Western Cape. His practice is situated in the heart of this seaside town.  Dr Peter Smith not only offers patients the full spectrum of professional orthopaedic treatments, but specialises in total knee replacement, total hip replacement, sports injuries and the latest arthroscopic surgery techniques and computer guided surgery. He gained extensive experience in the latest arthroplasty techniques during his stay of 6 years in Australia where he performed more than a hundred primary and revision hip and knee replacements cases in a year.



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