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The Most Effective Swollen Knee Treatments

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT December 01, 2021 0 Comments

Man stretching outdoor

When dealing with a swollen knee, treatment should target the source of swelling. Knee effusion occurs as a result of various underlying reasons that could be contributing to your swollen knee. Once cleared by your doctor, try these simple and effective remedies that you can do at home.

Ways to Treat Swollen Knees at Home

All of the treatment options listed below are tried and true options for getting relief from pesky knee pain and stiffness. Whether you’re dealing with a sports injury, overuse, rheumatoid arthritis, bursitis, arthritis, or something else, these remedies can help. Typically, finding time to incorporate all of these treatments into your daily routine will give you the best possible chance for recovery. 

Compression Support & Braces

Moderate compression to the knee provides support, warmth, and improves circulation resulting in reduced swelling, pain, stiffness, and fluid buildup. Here are some options for knee compression and support.

  • Knee Sleeves

    These are a great option for swelling and are generally safe for a wide variety of activities including sport, sleep, driving, walking, and other daily activities.

  • Knee Brace

    With more severe injuries of the knee that have caused knee instability, a brace is a great option. There are different types of braces depending on what caused your injury, including ones that lock the knee into a certain position, provide lateral stability, and more. If you’re not sure which is appropriate for your knee, talk to your doctor or physical therapist to discuss the possibilities.

Massage Therapy

Massaging can help in draining fluid that has accumulated within the joint. You can incorporate some self-massage techniques or seek treatment from a professional, such as a massage therapist or physical therapist. Be sure to use a variety of massage techniques such as rubbing of the soft tissue and prolonged direct pressure on any knots (known as trigger point release). Additionally, you can utilize massage tools that will give you an extra edge on your massage technique. The best options for the knee and leg include:

  • Massager Ball ( classic or cold)  or vibrating massage ball that can be applied to local muscles and around the knee joint itself by rolling up and down the affected tissues
  • Muscle roller stick or foam roller to address large muscles groups around the knee, such as the quads and hamstrings, all at once
  • TENS unit Electrical stimulation is considered another form of “massage.” By applying electrodes around the affected area, the use of a TENs unit can provide a gentle buzzing sensation to the skin and muscle for relief.

Cold Therapy

Ice is a go-to treatment option to address pain and swelling. All you need to do is grab an ice pack, frozen wet towel, or ice therapy machine and apply it to the knee. When icing an injured area be sure to apply ice in 20-minute intervals and use a light barrier between your skin and the cold pack to avoid frostbite, or damage to the skin.

Heat Therapy

If it’s been more than 72 hours after the injury or onset of swelling, you can also alternate cold therapy with the use of heat for 10 to twenty minutes as well. Heat can promote relaxation and pain relief. Since your knee is swollen and heat can cause swelling, it’s important to monitor your joint closely and only use heat if it doesn’t make swelling worse during use. When alternating between cold and heat, it is ideal to always end your temperature therapy with ice. This will help to optimally manage your swelling while still getting all the potential benefits of both.

How to Use Heat Therapy

Elevation

Keeping your knee elevated above the heart will help keep fluid moving out of the joint and keep it from getting stagnant and accumulating further fluid, which is common when you’re at rest for too long. Thus, when you’re seated try to keep your knee propped up on a stool. Don’t forget you can also add your ice and compression treatments at the same time to maximize your time spent resting.

Anti Inflammatory Medication

While it shouldn’t be a long-term solution, the use of medication can help manage swelling and joint pain. If you sustain an acute knee injury with significant pain, your doctor might prescribe you stronger medication. Additionally, your doctor may recommend a corticosteroid injection for chronic knee pain and swelling. Otherwise, you will likely be reaching for over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen or naproxen. These can offer short-term relief while you heal or after a flare-up of symptoms. However, they can have long-term side effects if used chronically so it’s best to use other treatment options for pain relief when possible. You might also consider supplements that contain anti-inflammatory properties, such as turmeric- just make sure to talk to your doctor first.

Exercise and Rehab

What type of exercise will help your swollen knee depends on the health of the local tissues and your symptoms. For mild to moderate injuries, you will benefit from keeping the knee moving with regular exercise. Muscle use is one of the best ways to keep the local joint fluid moving and prevent further excess fluid buildup. Plus, it’s important to keep the knee as flexible as possible with full range of motion to prevent unnecessary long-term complications.

Here are exercises to try plus demonstration videos from some of our favorite physical therapists.

  • Isometric exercises (tightening the muscles without moving the knee joint) for the quads, glutes, and hamstrings
  • Plyometric exercises (jumping moves)
  • Guided knee range of motion with a stretch strap or the help of a physical therapist
  • Active knee range of motion within tolerated range (flexion and extension)
  • Dynamic knee strengthening to promote muscle coordination and daily function, including:

    Squats

    Lunges

    Single Leg Balance

    Step-Ups

If you’re dealing with knee swelling and you aren’t sure where to start with an exercise program, it’s best to consult a physical therapist. They can recommend a personalized physical therapy program that will maximize your knee function and recovery.

Medical & Professional Help

If you suspect a more serious injury or your symptoms just aren’t improving, it’s always best to seek professional help. Suffering from a swollen joint and knee pain unnecessarily can lead to chronic long-term issues that significantly affect your quality of life. Thus, the sooner you seek medical guidance the better to help you feel your best.

Consult Your Doctor

If you’re ever feeling uncertain about the health of your knee, it’s best to consult your orthopedic doctor. Additionally, other specific reasons to get medical advice sooner than later include:

  • Unable to weight bear through your injured leg
  • You heard a pop or snap
  • You suspect a fracture or torn tissues
  • Significant bruising or swelling
  • Severe pain
  • Symptoms that aren’t starting to improve after 2-3 weeks
  • Knee instability
  • Knee clicking or locking
  • Significant reduction in quality of life

Surgical Options

Surgery for a swollen knee would only be warranted with moderate to severe tissue damage. Your doctor can assess the damage in your knee and decide if surgery is needed. Injuries such as a partial or full anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear or muscle tear might warrant immediate attention. Otherwise, most often conservative treatment is recommended first to see how the knee responds. If knee function does not improve and instability is present, surgery would then most likely be discussed. Here is a full list of common causes of a swollen knee that might warrant surgery:

  • Torn meniscus repair
  • Torn ACL, MCL, PCL, or LCL (ligaments of the knee) repair
  • Osteoarthritis (total knee replacement)
  • Bone spur or plica (connective tissue of the joint capsule) removal
  • Muscle or tendon tear repair
  • Fluid removal for a baker’s cyst

Relieve Swollen Knees

Dealing with a swollen knee doesn’t have to throw off your normal daily routine. First, having an understanding of what’s causing your swollen knee can help immensely. Then, having a game plan for addressing the swelling can make a huge difference in your ability to manage your symptoms and get you back to feeling your best. After reading through the list of possibilities above, you should be able to put together a swelling management program that works best for you and get on the path to a full recovery.

Resources:

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/swollen-knee/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20378134

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/how-to-reduce-swelling-in-knee-quickly

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Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.



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