The knees have it. Pain, that is.

Millions of people deal with aching knees. It’s one of the most common health problems, and it affects people of all ages.

Some hope the problem will just go away. For a minor injury like a strain, time and rest may help. But some people may spend months or years trying to ignore knee pain that needs attention.

There are many causes of knee pain, some serious and some that you can treat yourself. But as with many health issues, it’s a good idea to take care of problems before they get worse.

Two main causes of achy knees are injury and arthritis.

Injury

The knee moves while supporting body weight. That makes injuries common. It can happen in a second. You fall on your knee. You twist it unexpectedly. It’s hit during a game.

For a minor injury or strain, you can try the RICE steps: Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. RICE is also a good idea if you have knee swelling or a dull pain from prolonged standing or walking.

Nonsurgical treatments like adjusting how you exercise, medicine or physical therapy may be next steps.

If you have an injury or worn-out joint that doesn’t respond to nonsurgical treatment, surgery may be needed. There are surgeries to make repairs, reconstruct or replace worn parts of the knee. Most can be done using very small incisions, called minimally invasive surgery.

Joint replacement surgeries are on the rise for many reasons, including more people participating in extreme sports and the rise in obesity.

In knee replacement surgery, surgeons replace damaged bone and cartilage with sturdy man-made parts. There are partial replacements and total joint replacements. The surgeon will decide what is best for your condition.

Arthritis

The knee is one of the body’s most vulnerable spots for arthritis.

The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis (OA). That’s when the tissue protecting the end of your bones breaks down. It may affect joints anywhere in your body. It often happens in the weight-bearing joints such as hips and knees. More than 30 million Americans have OA, which can cause deformity, pain and limited movement.

Stressing your knee with certain repetitive movements in your job or while working out, like twisting, lifting or bending, can also contribute to arthritis. These types of movement can make the connecting tissue wear down. And sometimes arthritis pain in your knees may be related to arthritis in other areas. You might have arthritis in your hip that changes the way you walk, which then hurts your knee.

Symptoms may start small and get worse over time. Hot and cold therapy may be enough to ease mild arthritis pain. Heat helps blood flow and improves flexibility. Cold helps reduce swelling and inflammation.

If arthritis pain bothers you frequently or limits your activities, let your doctor know. Medicines that reduce pain or inflammation may help. If these aren’t enough, you may have other choices, like shots to lubricate your joints or physical therapy for better strength, flexibility and movement.

Look at Your Symptoms

The American Academy of Family Physicians has a handy interactive symptom checker to help you find out what may be causing your pain and what you can do. You’ll answer questions about your symptoms, like whether the pain started after a fall or injury or if your knee is red and swollen. The guide helps you find out what you can do yourself and when to talk to your doctor.

It’s important to note what activity makes it hurt, where the pain is located and what the pain feels like. That information and anything strange about how your knee is acting are important clues for deciding on what treatment is needed.

If your knee is painful, red and swollen and you have a fever, contact your doctor right away. Also consider seeing your doctor if your knee gives out on you, won’t bend or extend fully, or has a visible deformity.

icon_knee_painDon’t ignore what your knees are telling you.

If you have knee pain that lingers, don’t ignore it. Talk to your doctor. You may be able to ease the symptoms yourself at home. If not, your doctor can help you figure out if medicine, physical therapy or other treatment may be the next step.