Why Has My Knee Suddenly Started Hurting?

Author: Dr. Jeda Boughton, B.A., R.Ac., Dr. TCM, FABORM – Boda Health

If you’re experiencing knee pain, you’re not alone. Knee pain affects about one-quarter of adults and is one of the most common causes of chronic pain. To tell you the truth, I’m one of those people. I’ve been dealing with knee pain for a couple of years, but it didn’t begin with a blazing crash on the ski slopes or a bad twist while running or playing hockey. Instead, my knee woes were the result of a long, slow process and the combination of not properly strengthening my legs and doing a number of knee-challenging activities.

It actually began in 2020 when I overstretched my knee by sitting in a weird position for way too long. Then later that year, I went on a backcountry ski trip at Cypress Mountain in North Vancouver and tweaked the knee to the point that it was so painful I couldn’t ski or play hockey.

I had a number of treatments, including acupuncture, cold laser, shockwave therapy, massage, injections, supplements and herbs. These helped a lot, and by the summer of 2021, I was back playing hockey and all my other activities, but the knee still wasn’t quite right. It got sore at times and my range of motion was still hindered—I couldn’t bend it all the way.

Using a cold laser therapy array for treating sore knee pain in Vancouver

Clearly, while my knee was better, it hadn’t completely healed. However, that didn’t stop me from going skiing at Mt. Baker in Washington over Christmas in 2021. The snow was epic! I skied every day, but mixed it up with classic cross country, skate skiing and downhill. The snow was so deep and amazing that I didn’t want to stop. I had four of the best downhill ski days ever on that trip, but by the end of the week, my knee was seriously unhappy.

Dr Jeda Boughton skiing Mount Baker in December 2021 - lots of snow here

To make matters worse, when I got back, I walked to work on some slippery sidewalks. I didn’t fall, but having to navigate the ice aggravated my knee even more. By the end of that next week, the knee was done—it was extremely painful, swollen and achy with sharp shooting pains.

After X-rays at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, the orthopedic surgeon told me I had a torn meniscus and a partial tear of my MCL (medial collateral ligament). Since they typically don’t do surgery of MCL tears anymore, the doctor suggested rehab and strengthening, which is what I’ve been doing diligently since.

This is a long story, but I’m sharing it to make a number of points. One is that knee pain is common and can affect anyone. And it’s easy to overdo it or ignore early signs that something’s up with your knee. Also, your knees are stabilized by a number of muscles on both sides of the joint, especially the quadriceps and hamstrings in your thigh and your calves and tibialis, and being out of condition can increase your risk for knee problems. Finally, when surgery isn’t called for, natural therapies can play a major role in healing knee pain.

There are unlimited reasons you may experience knee pain, but some of the most common include:

  • Overuse injuries. This kind of injury can involve the tendons, muscles and bones in and around your knee, and it’s caused by repetitive stress on the joint. Some common forms of knee injuries include jumper’s knee from jumping and landing hard, runner’s knee that affects your kneecap, and iliotibial band (ITB) injuries in runners.
  • Osteoarthritis. This occurs because the cartilage—your knee’s shock-absorbing connective tissue—wears away due to aging and decades of wear and tear. With the loss of cartilage, the bones begin to rub against each other, which can cause inflammation, pain and bone spurs.
  • Bursitis. This is a condition in which the small gel-like sacs that protect your knee (or any joint) become injured, inflamed or swollen.
  • Traumatic knee injuries. An accident, fall, sports injury or just a weird twist of your knee when your foot is planted can cause all kinds of problems. This includes tearing of the meniscus (a kind of protective cartilage), a torn ACL or MCL (anterior or medial cruciate ligament) that help stabilize your knee, a sprain to the ligaments and bone fractures.

In the case of my knee, I suspect my problems stemmed from a traumatic “tweak” of my knee coupled with overuse. When it came to recovery, here’s what I found the most helpful for pain relief and restoring function—it’s also what I would recommend to my patients:

Acupuncture. I have found through years of clinical experience that acupuncture can be really effective for knee pain—and research backs that up. A review of almost twenty studies concluded that acupuncture is safe and effective in relieving knee pain. Scientists have also found that acupuncture works by blocking pain signals that are being transmitted to your brain and through the increased circulation of opioid-like neurotransmitters. Furthermore, acupuncture works because it reduces local inflammation, where the needles have been placed, because it bumps up the circulation of inflammation-fighting white blood cells. It also helps to promote better circulation in general, loosens tight muscles, speeds up the time it takes to heal and helps in recovering your range of motion.

Cold Laser Therapy. Cold laser therapy is a good option for knee pain and recovery; it really took away the acute ache in my knee. It uses light emitted from a low-level laser that gently and painlessly penetrates into deep tissue layers to activate changes at the cellular level. Cold laser therapy enhances cellular metabolism, which stimulates tissue repair and regeneration. It also helps to decrease inflammation in the area and relieve pain.

Shockwave Therapy. This is the use of acoustic waves that are produced by a handheld device that converts compressed air into sound waves. When applied to a treatment area, it helps to promote circulation, break down scar tissue and regenerate healthy tissue—all of which speed up the healing process. Shock wave therapy is good for all kinds of knee pain because it can be used to treat problems with tendons, ligaments, joint capsules, muscles and bones.

Massage Therapy. Regular massage sessions were helpful in rehabbing my knee for a couple of reasons. It helps to loosen and reduce tension in the surrounding muscles to relieve pain and improve range of motion. Massage also increases circulation to enhance the healing process and restore function.

Herbs and Supplements. Every herb in the Chinese formulary has specific functions, and I found herbal medicine useful during my knee recovery. Herbs are often combined into formulas for the greatest effect. For example, for a knee injury herbs to relieve pain, promote circulation and reduce inflammation might be combined into a single formula. In addition, I added supplements to my regimen that could be helpful, such as turmeric for reducing inflammation, and others nutrients to support tissue healing. At BodaHealth, our acupuncture practitioners and naturopathic doctor can help determine the best course of supplementation for your specific needs.

In addition to the above treatments, I also underwent ozone and prolotherapy injections into the knee joint that helped with the pain and healing. I also enlisted the help of a physiologist, kinesiologist and personal trainer to address muscle imbalances and poor biomechanics that may have contributed to my knee injury. They helped me devise a plan of exercises, stretches and preventative strategies to rehab my knee.

rehab a knee injury with knee curls nordic knee as rehab treatment for knee injury

While my doctor ordered an MRI on my knee eight weeks ago, it’s likely to be months before I get one. In the meantime, I have continued with natural treatments and rehab exercises to reduce the pain, speed up healing and strengthen my knee and the surrounding muscles. I’ve regained about 85% of my range of motion and I am 90% pain-free.  I feel fortunate to have access to acupuncture, cold laser and all the other therapies offered at BodaHealth, not only because it’s helped me, but because I have learned firsthand how much we have to offer to other people who also have knee pain. As of this writing, I’m 11 weeks into my knee treatment and rehab program. I probably won’t be skiing again this season but I’m going to try to skate and hopefully play hockey soon! Wish me luck!

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