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Knee injuries

Wharanga ā-turi

Your knee is the largest joint in your body. The bones of your knee are separated by two strong rubbery discs of cartilage called menisci (plural) or meniscus (singular). Your upper leg bone (femur) and lower leg bones (tibia and fibula) are joined by ligaments, tendons and muscles.

Your bones are covered by articular cartilage, which absorbs shock and provides a smooth, gliding surface for joint movement.

Sudden knee injury often happens after a fast twisting action. Pain in your knee can be very mild or very severe depending on how your injury happened. Pain and swelling are the most common signs of knee injury. It might feel like your knee is catching or locking up. You might feel unstable, like your knee is giving way.

This page focuses on severe soft tissue, meniscus, tendon and ligament injuries. There are other pages for anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, broken knee (knee fracture), broken kneecap (fractured patella) and dislocated kneecap (dislocated patella).

Knee injuries can go on to cause other problems such as osteoarthritis.

Diagnosing knee injuries

Soft tissue knee injuries can be hard to diagnose if your knee is too swollen and painful to examine.

If your knee is not too swollen, it's generally safe to apply the treatment described in Soft tissue injuries & treatment, and wait a week to see if it settles down without treatment.

Visit your general practice team or physiotherapist if your injury doesn't seem to be settling down after a week.

Seek treatment immediately if:

Your general practice team or physiotherapist will ask about the symptoms you've been feeling. They may ask you to come back in a week or two to allow the swelling to go down so they can examine you properly. You may need an X-ray or an ultrasound scan to find the exact problem. If it's likely that you'll need surgery to fix the problem, you may be referred to an orthopaedic surgeon.

Treating knee injuries

The treatment depends on which part of your knee you've injured. If your knee is very swollen and painful, you may be given a compression stocking (called a Tubigrip) to reduce swelling and crutches to help you walk.

Self-care for knee injuries

If you have severe knee pain, you should stop exercising as it could make the problem worse.

Pain relief

Paracetamol (Panadol) can help to reduce your pain. Take it for three to four days according to the instructions on the packet. If pain is still a problem after that, consult your health professional.

You can also use anti-inflammatory pain relief, such as ibuprofen (Nurofen) or diclofenac (Voltaren). These medicines are also called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. As well as relieving pain, they limit inflammation.

But NSAIDs can have some serious side effects, especially if you take them for a long time. Two serious side effects are stomach pain and bleeding from your stomach. Some people with asthma, high blood pressure, kidney failure and heart failure might not even be able to take them for a short time. If you aren't sure if you can take NSAIDs, check with your general practice team or pharmacist.

Getting help for a knee injury

If pain is still a problem even when taking paracetamol or NSAIDS, see your general practice team to discuss other types of pain relief and to make sure there is not a more serious problem.

You might want to see your physiotherapist who can help you strengthen you knee and leg.

If your knee injury is affecting your ability to work, talk to your general practice team. It's common to need time off work with these kinds of injuries. You could ask ACC about help so you can return to work.

  HealthInfo recommends the following pages

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed July 2022.


See also:

ACC help after an injury

Pain relief for adults

Self-care after an injury

Using crutches

Page reference: 463431

Review key: HIHIL-240273