According to a 2011 Annals of Internal Medicine article, 25% of American adults suffer with frequent knee pain that limits work, life and mobility. In those adults over age 50, osteoarthritis of the knee is the most frequent cause of knee pain. Among adolescent athletes, the knee is the most commonly injured joint. For these young athletes, injuries to the MCL (medial collateral ligament), patellar tendon, ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), meniscus and LCL (lateral collateral ligament) are most common. Most sports injuries involve a planting and twisting motion of the leg, or a tackle when the foot is fixed. In this blog, you’ll learn about knee injury treatment, knee pain management, and the best exercises for knee injury and knee pain.

Parts of the Knee

anatomy of kneeFirst, let’s take a look at the parts of the knee (see side view of the knee). The knee is made of three bones – the thigh bone (femur), the shin bone (tibia) and the kneecap (patella). The knee can bend and go straight by flexing the muscles that support the knee (quadriceps, hamstrings, calf). Inside the knee, there are two cartilage pads for shock absorption called meniscus. There are also four stabilizing ligaments of the knee – the ACL and PCL are deep inside the knee, the LCL and MCL are on the outer and inner surface of your knee, respectively. These ligaments help promote stability of the knee.

Common knee injury management and treatment for ligament and meniscus injuries:

  1. For knee injury treatment from trauma (sports, fall, recreation), see a medical provider within 2-3 days of injury.
  2. If you are appropriate for physical therapy for your knee injury, see a PT within the first week post injury. (Read about how to find a good PT.)
  3. Acute knee injury treatment may include controlling of the swelling, maintaining full motion of the knee, and walking normally but safely with the help of crutches or a brace when appropriate.
  4. Progressive physical therapy includes strengthening, activity-based exercises and readiness for sport drills and skills.
  5. Return-to-sport is possible after a knee injury, and your physical therapist can guide you through the steps.
  6. Surgery may or may not be recommended based upon injury type, your activity level and your age. Early evaluation is essential.

Knee pain treatment is similar to knee injury treatment with a few distinctions:

  1. If knee pain has persisted longer than one month, then see a physical therapist.
  2. Knee pain treatment focuses on normal motion, restoring strength, and improving movement patterns with walking, running, etc.
  3. With comprehensive knee pain treatment, most knee pain will resolve itself (even in the presence of osteoarthritis) without the need for surgery.
  4. If your knee pain is caused by end stage osteoarthritis, it’s important to see an orthopedic surgeon.

Exercises for knee pain and injuries

Exercises for knee pain and following a knee injury are essential to manage the pain and heal, and to return to normal life and sport activities. Here are some typical exercises we prescribe in physical therapy:

man laying down doing hyperextension exercisesHyperextension 

In the picture to the left, the athlete is working on hyperextension of the left knee. Ten minutes, 3-5 times daily to reduce stiffness, is commonly prescribed. A 3-5 pound weight may be draped across the knee for use at home. Restoration of normal hyperextension reduces pain now and into the future.

Quadricep sets 

While lying on your back, gently squeeze the muscle on the tops of your thigh, pressing the back of your knee into the floor. Hold 3 seconds and relax. Perform 50-100 times daily to reduce swelling and activate your quadriceps.

Functional retraining

Knee pain and knee injury exercises tend to start off easy and progress into harder exercises. Once your knee swelling is well-controlled and you can easily activate your quadriceps, you are ready for more exercise. Squats, lunges, step-ups, step-downs, biking, fast walking, one-legged balance training and sport specific training are all excellent exercises to help you manage your knee pain and heal long term.

Whether you have suffered a knee injury from sports or you have osteoarthritis causing you knee pain, there are many conservative solutions available. If you have not seen a physical therapist and you live in Portland, Oregon, contact us at 503-295-2585 or For those outside of Oregon, go to and click on “Find a PT” to get started with physical therapy. Please feel free to email your feedback to