Physical Therapy for Knee Pain: How It Works, What to Expect, and Tips from Hinge Health
Learn how to treat and overcome knee pain, and get tips to prevent knee pain flares from occurring in the future.
Your knees. They are the largest joints in your body, and they have an equally big, important job. Your knees help you get dressed in the morning, go up and down stairs, play hide-and-go-seek with your grandkids, run errands, and prep dinner. So yeah, after all that they might ache a little bit. Or maybe your knees constantly remind you of their existence due to a condition like knee arthritis or other knee issues.
“Often, knee pain isn’t caused by one thing — it’s a combination of factors like weakness at the knee, normal age-related changes to the joint, or doing too much activity too soon,” says Hinge Health physical therapist Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT.
Although ongoing knee pain can interfere with your daily activities and overall quality of life, physical therapy can make a big difference in how you feel. Physical therapy is a proven non-invasive, drug-free approach to effectively manage, reduce, and, in some cases, prevent knee pain.
Whether you're an office worker with stiff knees, an athlete with a sports injury, or someone coping with age-related changes to your knees, you can always reclaim a life with less pain by following a personalized care plan from a physical therapist.
Physical therapy is “treatment provided by a physical therapist or physical therapist assistant that helps people improve their movement and physical function, manage pain and other chronic conditions, and recover from and prevent injury and chronic disease,” according to the American Physical Therapy Association. Hinge Health offers access to physical therapy and much more. It’s a digital musculoskeletal clinic that helps people take control of their pain and other symptoms by providing physical therapy, exercise therapy, education, and health coaching, among other offerings.
Here, we’ll explain how physical therapy is used to treat knee pain and how Hinge Health can offer access to physical therapy and more. (To see if you qualify for the Hinge Health program, confirm coverage at no cost to you through your employer here.)
Our Hinge Health Experts
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT
Knee Pain Explained
Knee pain is an umbrella term that can refer to any discomfort you feel around your knee joints that limits your day-to-day activity, according to Hinge Health physical therapist Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT. There are many structures that support these joints — including cartilage, menisci, ligaments, muscles, and tendons — and connect your thigh bone (or femur) to your lower leg (tibia). These structures work together to give your knees the strength and stability to bend and flex, and to also prevent too much lateral movement.
Knee pain can be acute (lasting less than 12 weeks) or chronic (lasting longer than 12 weeks). But while the causes of knee pain may vary (from arthritis and tendinitis to a strain or sprain), movement can be an effective way to minimize your symptoms. Research shows that regular exercise — any kind, including cardio like walking, strength training, stretching and balance training — is effective for reducing joint stiffness and improving strength and mobility, even if you have a knee condition.
How Can Physical Therapy Help My Knees?
When your knees hurt — and you feel fragile or limited — there’s a tendency to stop your daily activities to rest up and heal. It does seem logical: I hurt, so I should take it easy, right? And it’s true that dialing back your movement a little for a period of time can be helpful. But taking a total hiatus from exercise isn’t the answer. "No matter what’s involved in your knee pain, there’s always something you can do to improve it. And that often starts with moving more, or moving smarter" says Dr. Peterson.
Activity can sometimes cause a temporary uptick in pain. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you're harming yourself. In fact, it’s actually one of the best things you can do for knee pain in the long run.
You may not be able to control every issue involved in your knee pain, but you do have the power to manage your symptoms and break the pain cycle.
That’s where physical therapy can be a game changer.
Knee Symptoms and Physical Therapy
Physical therapy is one of the first nonsurgical treatments providers recommend for many cases of knee pain. Targeted exercises can help relieve pain while strengthening and stretching weakened or strained muscles.
Physical therapy can help you manage a lot of different knee pain symptoms, including:
Feeling like your knee is unstable and could give out
Popping or crunching noises when you move your knee
Inability to fully straighten your leg
Trouble bearing weight on your knee
Knee Conditions and Physical Therapy
Knee pain may be related to many different conditions that can be effectively treated or managed with physical therapy. These include:
Iliotibial band syndrome
Injury, such as a torn ligament or cartilage
Strain or sprain
Whether knee pain is primarily due to one of these conditions or something else, physical therapy can offer a lot of benefits for knee pain and function.
Goals of Physical Therapy for Knee Pain
Improving function. The primary goal of physical therapy is getting you back to doing the things you love — or even just being able to accomplish the daily stuff you need to do with more ease and less pain.
Relieving pain. A primary goal of physical therapy for knee pain is to reduce discomfort so you can do what you want and need to do each day. Physical therapists provide guidance on how to perform therapeutic exercises that are tailored for your needs and goals. Research shows that people with knee pain who engage in PT do better on tests of physical ability, report more satisfaction with the way their body feels and functions, have fewer sleep issues, and experience less fatigue. There’s evidence that doing PT on a digital platform can yield similar results.
Having fewer arthritis symptoms. Studies show that PT can reduce symptoms of knee osteoarthritis (the most common type) and improve quality of life.
Increasing range of motion. Knee pain can restrict your normal range of motion, leading to stiffness and limited mobility. Physical therapy focuses on restoring range of motion with targeted exercises and stretches. This helps loosen tight muscles, improve flexibility, and promote better joint movement.
Strengthening and stabilizing knee muscles. Muscles that have lost strength can contribute to knee pain and instability. Physical therapists prescribe specific strengthening exercises to target the muscles that support your knees. These exercises improve muscle strength, endurance, and stability. This reduces strain on your knees and improves overall function.
Providing education and self-management techniques. Physical therapists play a vital role in educating patients about their symptoms and conditions, providing self-management strategies and lifestyle changes, and empowering them to take an active role in their recovery. Physical therapists can help you make lifestyle modifications as needed and teach you how you can manage pain on your own (especially with movement and exercise) so you can keep making progress toward your goals.
Sharing prevention tips. Physical therapy isn’t just about managing current pain episodes. It’s also about equipping you with tools and knowledge to prevent future knee pain flares and maintain healthy knees and body. Physical therapists may provide guidance on ongoing exercises, self-care strategies, and lifestyle modifications to minimize the risk of reinjury and promote long-term knee health.
The goals and treatment approaches used in physical therapy will vary depending on your specific condition and needs. A thorough assessment by a qualified physical therapist will help determine the most appropriate treatment plan tailored to your unique situation.
Physical Therapy, Exercise Therapy, and Hinge Health
Physical therapy means you are getting treatment from a licensed physical therapist or physical therapy assistant. At Hinge Health, our members can see their own licensed physical therapist who personalizes and oversees their care plan. Hinge Health physical therapists focus on what we call exercise therapy, or therapeutic exercises.
Exercise therapy means following a treatment plan of different types of exercises to help relieve pain, improve function and mobility, recover from injuries, and manage chronic conditions. Many people associate “exercise” only with getting fit or losing weight. We at Hinge Health love the phrase exercise therapy because it speaks to one of our main treatment philosophies: Movement is medicine.
Exercise therapy and physical therapy are not interchangeable. Our physical therapists prescribe exercise therapy to our members. Following your own personalized exercise therapy routine is one of the best ways to heal your knee pain and prevent it from recurring.
Knee Pain Recovery with Hinge Health
If you’re experiencing knee pain that makes it hard to move freely, you can get relief with Hinge Health. A digital clinic for joint and muscle care, Hinge Health provides members with access to their own physical therapist, in addition to other program offerings (guided exercise therapy, personalized health coaching, education, and more).
It can be very challenging to stay consistent in doing exercise therapy, but research shows that consistency is the best way to build a habit and maximize your results. Our physical therapists, health coaches, doctors, and other care team members all share a common goal of helping our members make exercise therapy a habit so they can get back to doing what they love.
Hinge Health physical therapists can give you an assessment and provide you with personalized recommendations to help you achieve your goals. Our physical therapists are trained to rule out any serious causes of your pain, modify your activities, empower you with tools to help you hurt less, and provide you with a personalized program to strengthen your body and help you recover.
Meeting with a Hinge Health Physical Therapist
Unlike many traditional physical therapy visits, you can meet with a Hinge Health physical therapist via video visit. That means, from the comfort of your own home, you can discuss your symptoms and goals with a physical therapist. They can conduct a movement assessment, observing how you move through different ranges of motion — and then create a personalized plan for you based on their findings. They can show you how to perform certain exercises and make sure you feel confident performing those movements on your own.
In addition to looking at your movement patterns and showing you how to do certain exercises, your video visit with a physical therapist provides you the opportunity to ask questions about your pain, function, and progress in the Hinge Health program. Your physical therapist can also make modifications to the exercises in your Hinge Health program to help you along the way to healing.
Hinge Health's Proven Results and Effectiveness
Hinge Health members have access to a library of therapeutic exercises designed to help you overcome your knee pain. This involves a combination of strengthening and stretching exercises. Your physical therapist can then tailor those exercises even further to better suit your needs and help you achieve your specific goals.
We’ve published clinical studies with over 10,000 Hinge Health members, in collaboration with researchers at Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco. These show that our members experience, on average, a 68% reduction in pain in their first 12 weeks alone. Of course, beating pain has other benefits, too. These members experienced a 58% decrease in anxiety and depression on average over that same period.
Importance of Health Coaching
Another facet of the Hinge Health program that sets it apart: personalized health coaching. In addition to having tailored exercises and access to a physical therapist, many Hinge Health members work with a health coach. Their job: to be your partner and support you on your Hinge Health journey.
“Often when people feel pain, their instinct is to limit the activities they do. But that can lead to weakness and a lack of flexibility that only adds to the cycle of pain,” says Dr. Kimbrough. Moving even when you have some amount of pain can be a beneficial way to improve mobility and promote healing of your knee. And that’s where your Hinge Health coach can help. They’re experts at listening, reflecting, encouraging, and helping members get routines in place. They are helpful for accountability and for moving past obstacles and thinking through where to put a new habit into your life.
Your coach can share information and guidance on the exercises and education concepts in your program, help you stay motivated and accountable, celebrate your progress and support you in working through obstacles, and help you explore meaningful goals and ways to reach them.
Exercise Therapy for Knee Pain Relief
These knee exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists help build lower body strength, flexibility, and mobility. These act as a good starting point, but you can also work with a physical therapist for more personalized guidance.
The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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Knee Pain — Symptoms and Causes. (2019). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https:www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/knee-pain/symptoms-causes/syc-20350849
Zeng, C. Y. et al. (2021). Benefits and Mechanisms of Exercise Training for Knee Osteoarthritis. Frontiers in Physiology, vol. 12. doi:10.3389/fphys.2021.794062
Allen K. D. et al. (2018). Physical therapy vs internet-based exercise training for patients with knee osteoarthritis: results of a randomized controlled trial. Osteoarthritis Cartilage, 26(3), 383-396. doi:10.1016/j.joca.2017.12.008
The Physical Therapy Profession. (n.d.). American Physical Therapy Association, Retrieved from https://www.apta.org/contentassets/5a330c03bbe24a999608030270ced59c/physical-therapy-overview-high-early-college.pdf
Shamliyan, T. A., et al. (2012). Physical Therapy Interventions for Knee Pain Secondary to Osteoarthritis. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK114568
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