Instability at any joint in the body can make daily tasks a little more difficult, but that’s especially true for instability that develops in your knee. Our knees handle an immense amount of stress each day as we run, walk and move, and if the knee joint is unstable, not only can movement become uncomfortable, you’re at a heightened risk for injury if the knee becomes overstressed in an unstable position.
Knees are one of our favorite areas to target with physical therapy because they oftentimes respond well to targeted conservative treatment. With that in mind, we want to use today’s blog to focus on how our team of physical therapists can help you if you’re dealing with knee instability.
Causes And Symptoms of Knee Instability
Knee instability, also known as patellar instability, is an umbrella term to describe any injury to the kneecap that prevents normal movement and joint stability. When you bend your knee, the kneecap moves up and down inside a groove known as the trochlea. Think of it as a train moving along a train track. In an unstable knee, the kneecap moves off this track as it works towards its resting place. Left untreated, you’re at a heightened risk to experience more episodes of instability, and it can even lead to knee dislocation.
Knee instability can develop for a couple different reasons, but the most common cause is a result of acute injury. If the knee experiences direct trauma, or you place a lot of stress on the joint while jumping or changing direction, the kneecap can shift out of its normal groove. Oftentimes the knee pops right back on the groove, but if it doesn’t, professional assistance to relocate the kneecap will be necessary.
Aside from direct trauma, knee instability can occur as a result of atraumatic stress, like when walking or running on uneven terrain or when navigating stairs. This is less common, but you may be more likely to suffer from this type of injury based on factors like your individual bone structure, hip and knee muscles weakness or as a result of damage to the ligaments and tendons that help to hold the kneecap in place.
Symptoms of knee instability include:
- Pain, especially when performing athletic activities
- An unstable sensation in the area
- Knee or leg weakness
Diagnosing And Treating Knee Instability
If you believe you’re dealing with an unstable knee joint, you can go directly to a physical therapist’s office without a doctor’s referral. They’ll ask about your symptoms, talk to you about the incident that led to the injury and conduct a physical exam to assess strength, flexibility and function. Unless a more major injury is suspected, imaging exams such as an MRI or X-ray are not typically needed.
If your PT believes you are suffering from knee instability, they’ll share some more details about the condition and develop a treatment plan that works to strengthen the joint so that the kneecap can handle more stress without moving out of its groove. While every plan will be based on the individual, some of the areas a PT will target will include:
- Pain Control – We’ll educate patients on how to use ice/heat therapy to limit discomfort, and which activities to avoid while recovering to avoid aggravation.
- Range Of Motion – Knee instability typically restricts normal range of motion, so your PT will work to help reestablish normal range of motion through targeted exercises, stretches and physical manipulations.
- Muscle Strength – Developing the muscles that support the knee helps to take stress off the kneecap during movement, so developing these muscles will be key.
- Balance Training – It may not seem like your balance is overly affected by instability, but because your knee is unstable, it won’t be as easy to bear stress and remain balanced, so your PT will have you perform some one-legged exercises to help develop balance and confidence in the knee.
- Patient Education – Knowing which movements are harmful or helpful for your knee can go a long way in protecting the area from another instability issue.
So if your knee just doesn’t feel right, or you don’t have confidence in your knees like you used to, reach out to a physical therapist at OrthoRehab Specialists and let us help restore function and stability to your knee joint.