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How to Diagnose Knee Pain

By Lori Newell ; Updated July 27, 2017

Millions of people live with chronic knee pain. The knee is a complex joint and there are many situations that can cause knee pain. The first step in managing your pain is to get your condition properly diagnosed. Individuals who are older may just brush it off as arthritis. However knee pain can be from a problem with the muscles, ligaments and/or tendons and not necessarily damage to the joint cartilage or bones. A torn ligament such as the ACL needs a different treatment approach than osteoarthritis of the knee. Since different diagnoses call for different treatment plans, you can not effectively manage your condition until you know the exact cause. As soon as you notice knee pain, it is best to check with your doctor so he or she can perform the necessary tests to determine the cause of your pain.

Create a list of the symptoms you are experiencing, including when the knee pain usually occurs. Try to determine when your symptoms are worse and when they are better. For example, is your pain worse with activity or does it seem worse after being inactive? What movements (twisting, bending or rotating) increase the pain?

Try to describe the type of pain. Is it dull and achy or is it sharp and stabbing? Tell your physician if you pain is recent or it has been getting progressively worse over weeks or months.

Be observant of other symptoms such as numbness or tingling. Notice if the pain is in the front of the knee, behind the knee or on one side. Does your knee lock or grind? All of this information will help your doctor to determine the cause if your pain and the most appropriate tests to have done.

Visit your physician for a complete physical exam. She will look to see if there is any swelling, redness or deformity to the joint. Your physician will also test for tenderness in specific areas of the knee as well as testing your range of motion and strength. She will want to know if you have experienced any recent fevers, weight loss or other symptoms that could be indicative of a disease that causes knee pain.

Your doctor will take note if you are overweight which may be placing to much stress on the knee, as well as discussing your physical habits. He or she will want to know if you exercise regularly to help keep the body string and flexible. Knowing what sports and hobbies you participate in will help to determine of there is an overuse injury causing your knee pain.

During your exam you will need to tell the doctor if you have had a recent accident or are dealing with an old injury. It is also helpful to have a list of any types of treatments you have already tried and whether or not they helped or made your pain worse.

Getting an x-ray is helpful to tell if there is problem with the bones or joint space. X-rays can pick up on fractures, tumors or degenerative changes such as arthritis.

Having an MRI will determine if the pain is due to a muscles, soft tissue injury or ligament damage.

If your doctor suspects certain types of arthritis, they may draw fluid from the joint to be examined. Blood tests may also be needed to determine if you pain is due to an illness rather then an injury.


Stop any exercise that causes knee pain. If your pain is the result of exercise or a sport, there may be some simple changes you can make to your body mechanics or technique that will alleviate your symptoms. Talk to your trainer or coach about your symptoms.


Never ignore pain. Pain is a signal from your body that something is wrong. The longer you ignore that pain the worse your situation may become. The worse your injury becomes the more involved your treatment plan and recovery time will be.

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