Medical Therapies for Knee Sprains, Strains & Tears

Any type of knee injury considered to be mild, such as a sprain, typically does not cause significant discomfort. Your doctor may recommend resting the affected area by using a knee brace and modifying your daily activities for a short time. This helps you to avoid added stress on the injured area. Over time, injuries such as mild sprains and strains, as well as mild meniscal tears, may heal on their own. Your doctor may recommend medications or arthrocentesis to relieve knee pain.

NYU Langone doctors can advise you on how best to go about your daily activities as you heal without exacerbating the injury to the muscle, tendon, or ligament.

Rest, Ice, Heat, Compression, and Elevation

Doctors recommend a combination of rest, ice, compression, and elevation—called the RICE regimen—for one or two weeks after diagnosis. The time frame for RICE treatment varies depending on the severity of the knee injury and is determined by your doctor.

Resting the affected ligaments, tendons, muscles, and cartilage gives the knee time to heal. Your doctor may provide a cane or crutches to help you keep weight off the affected knee for about a week. After the swelling starts to subside, most people can walk while wearing a knee brace.

During the first 3 days after the injury, your doctor may recommend applying ice to your knee 3 times a day for 15 minutes at a time to reduce swelling. After this, applying a heating pad or another heat source, such as a heat wrap, can increase blood flow to the injured area and speed healing. Elevating the knee 3 times a day for 15 minutes at a time may also help reduce swelling.

Until the inflammation fully subsides, doctors recommend avoiding the activity that caused the injury, as well as other activities that put stress on the knee. Returning to work or sports too soon greatly increases the risk that a knee injury may heal slowly or worsen or that another injury may occur.

Your doctor determines when your knee has healed based on relief of your symptoms.

Immobilization

If the affected muscle, tendon, or ligament isn’t torn completely and the pain is not extreme, your doctor may advise that you immobilize the knee, or prevent it from moving, for a brief period of time. This allows any swelling and pain to subside and gives your body a chance to heal on its own.

Your doctor may provide you with a brace to wear over your knee to protect and support the joint while it heals. The design and function of the brace used depends on the type and extent of the knee injury.

Most braces extend above and below the knee and contain movable parts; the goal is to allow you to walk and slightly bend your knee while wearing it. The brace prevents you from moving the knee from side to side and overextending the joint in any direction.

NYU Langone orthopedists often work with orthotics specialists, who custom-fit braces for people with knee injuries. This ensures that you’re comfortable while wearing the device.

After you stop wearing the brace, your doctor may recommend a slow return to physical activity or refer you for physical or occupational therapy, which can help you recover. Slowly building up your activity level can help you to strengthen your muscles and improve flexibility in the knee, which may help you to avoid a repeat injury.

Pain Relief Medication

A knee injury can be painful. NYU Langone doctors typically recommend taking an over-the-counter pain medication, such as acetaminophen, as needed throughout recovery. If this does not relieve discomfort, your doctor may prescribe a stronger pain medication for one or two weeks to help you recover comfortably.

Arthrocentesis

If your symptoms include swelling, warmth, or redness, doctors may recommend a procedure called arthrocentesis to remove fluid from the joint.

To perform arthrocentesis, a doctor first injects a small amount of local anesthetic to numb the skin. Next, he or she carefully guides the needle into the joint space, where fluid has accumulated. The doctor removes fluid through the needle, which can relieve knee pain almost immediately.