What is a Locked Knee, and What Should You Do About It?

What is a Locked Knee, and What Should You Do About It?

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A "locked knee" is a term used to describe a patient's inability to either bend or straighten their knee.  A locked knee can be a very painful condition that limits not only the ability to bend, but also the ability to walk, step up, or even sit down comfortably.  Finding relief from the discomfort of a locked knee is dependent on first determining the cause of the problem, and then addressing the source of the problem to allow the knee to bend normally again.

There are two general types of locked knees. The locked knee can either be caused by a mechanical block to knee motion, or a locked knee can be caused by pain that is too severe to allow knee motion.  The first step of your physician is to determine if the knee is not bending as a result of pain, or a result of something inside physically impeding motion of the joint.

A Locked Knee: What To Do

When a locked knee is caused by a mechanical block to motion, there is something that is physically being caught within the mechanism of the knee. Often the cause of a locked knee in this situation is a "bucket handle" meniscus tear. When this type of meniscus tear occurs, a large fragment of the torn meniscus can become wedged within the knee, preventing normal movement of that knee.

Patients can also have a locked knee when they have severe pain with any knee motion. While it may be difficult for a patient to determine whether or not there is a physical block to their knee motion, or if pain is the issue, a good physical examination can usually separate these two types of problems.

Treatments Available

When there is a physical block to knee mobility such as a bucket-handle meniscus tear or a loose piece of cartilage, the typical treatment is to remove the impediment with an arthroscopic knee surgery.  Sometimes your doctor may try injecting the knee with a local anesthetic to alleviate the discomfort and try to move the impediment, but typically the cartilage or meniscus will be removed.

If the issue preventing motion is just a pain issue, then the pain needs to be managed.  Typically simple pain relieving treatments such as ice, anti-inflammatory medications, and rest, will allow the pain to subside.  If these simpler steps are not helpful, often an injection of a local anesthetic or a cortisone shot can help to reduce the discomfort to a point that allows you to bend the joint again.  Seldom are prescription pain medications necessary to alleviate the pain of a locked knee, and these medications should be used with caution because of possible side-effects.

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