Why are knees so hard to heal?

Johanne Gordon

April 26, 2021

Everything you need to know about knee pain

For active patients, knees can be a particularly sensitive area. Knee injuries are surprisingly common, with everything from torn ACLs to irritating knee sprains.

You don’t realize how important your knees are until they’re in pain. Knees are important for physical activity, stretching, bending, and mobility.

Most patients find that knees take slightly longer to heal than other joints or body parts. Why is that, exactly? We’ve answered that question and more below.

What parts of the knee are important

To understand knee injuries better, it’s important to understand how knees actually work. Many don’t realize this, but it’s actually one of the most complex parts of the body. That’s because it links together your thigh bone, shin bones, and kneecap.

Some of the most important – and sensitive – parts of the knee include:

  • Femur: your thigh bone

  • Tibia: your shine bone

  • Patella: your kneecap

  • Lateral meniscus and medial meniscus: Lateral means ‘outer’ and medial means ‘inner.’ These are cushion-like discs that absorb shock to protect your knee bones.

  • MCL and LCL: these ligaments prevent your femur from moving side-to-side

  • ACL and PCL: these ligaments prevent your femur and tibia from sliding

Each of these parts are vulnerable to unique types of injuries and conditions.

READ MORE: Why it’s never too late for physiotherapy

The most common knee injuries

Torn ACL

‘ACL’ is short for anterior cruciate ligament. This ligament keeps your knee joint stable. It’s common to sprain or tear your ACL, especially if you are physically active.

A torn ACL occurs when your knee is locked into one position, but your leg moves in a different position.

ACL injuries can vary in severity and recommended treatment. They may require surgery or extended periods of healing – sometimes, they take months to heal.

Dislocated kneecap

When the connective tissues in the knee bone become torn or stretched, the knee can become dislocated. Specifically, the patella, which is a bone in front of the knee, becomes dislodged or moved out of position.

As the knee is relocated, you may have to take one of many routes to healing. Physical therapy can often help patients heal quickly, though in more extreme cases, surgery may be required.

In most cases, healing won’t take longer than 6 weeks.

Knee strains and sprains

The terms ‘strain’ and ‘sprain’ are often used interchangeable, but they have different definitions. In most cases, a strain occurs when muscles or tendons are stretched or torn. A sprain, meanwhile, occurs when ligaments are stretched or torn.

It is possible to face both throughout your knees, and both outcomes feel the same: a painful sting with swelling or cramping.

Fortunately, most sprains and strains heal quickly with rest.

Kneecap fracture

Also called a ‘patellar fracture’, a kneecap fracture can be particularly painful. The kneecap is meant to act as a protective shield for the rest of your knee and its more sensitive parts. Fractures usually occur when your kneecap experiences heavy force, like if it is pushed against a hard surface. Kneecap fractures are extremely painful and make it hard to straighten your leg.

Usually, doctors will perform an x-ray to determine whether surgery is necessary. Fractures may take weeks or months to heal depending on the severity.

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Why are knees so sensitive?

Knees take a long time to heal – a lot longer than other parts of your body, at least. Why is that?

A few reasons could explain the lengthy healing period. One study from 2016 found that knee joints do not repair themselves easily, suggesting that knees are at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the body.

Knees are also a particularly tricky joint to treat: they’re complex, with many bones and ligaments working together to form a full knee. One small problem can affect the way the rest of the knee works.

Here’s why you shouldn’t ignore your knee pain

Knee pain shouldn’t be ignored. Leaving knee issues untreated can lead to permanent damage, making it difficult to walk, stretch, bend or move for years to come.

We recommend seeing a doctor for cases that you believe involved one of the injuries described above. If you find that you have trouble moving or stretching, or you tend to face knee pain often, we might be able to help. At Elysian Wellness Centre, our physiotherapists are trained experts who understand how movement can help you heal – even when movement doesn’t seem easy.

READ MORE: Knee osteoarthritis and physiotherapy

Conclusion

Knee pain can be irritating, and might indicate a larger injury. From torn ACLs to kneecap fractures, there are so many ways to injure your knee. For that reason, you should take proper care of your knees. This means stretching before and after exercise, and reporting your pain to a doctor or physiotherapist should you experience it.

Johanne Gordon - Registered Physiotherapist

April 26, 2021

Johanne is an experienced, fluently bilingual physiotherapist who graduated in 1992 with a Bachelor of Science in physiotherapy with magna cum laude honours from the University of Ottawa.