Is a wobbly knee preventing you from walking comfortably? Here’s how you can get relief.
Considering how much you use your knees for walking, running, climbing stairs, and playing sports, it’s not surprising that you may start to feel some aches and pains. A feeling of instability or buckling can happen suddenly (usually because of a traumatic injury) or because of a gradual weakening from overuse.
The knee is a complex joint that is able to flex and bend because of its network of ligaments that connect the femur (thigh bone) to the tibia and fibula in the shin. There are four major ligaments that serve to stabilize the knee. The medial collateral ligament (MCL) is located on the inner side of the knee and the lateral collateral ligament (LCL) can be found along the outer side. The other two ligaments are the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) along the front of the knee and the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) at the back of the knee. Also within the joint are menisci, or two sets of cartilage that cushion the knee bones. An injury or deterioration of any of those components can lead to buckling knees as you walk.
Why Your Knee Buckles
Knee buckling can be accompanied by other symptoms, such as a cracking or grinding sensation, a popping sound, stiffness, pain, and bruising. If your knee gives out, it’s important to get it checked out as soon as possible because continuing to walk with weak knees could lead to a serious fall. A doctor can perform a series of tests to gauge the joint’s range of motion or order imaging tests like an MRI to peak into the structure of the knee. After an examination, your doctor will make a diagnosis, which will likely be one of these four common causes of knee instability.
Ligament tears can be either complete or partial. One of the most common is an ACL tear that occurs because of a sudden change of direction or due to a fall (often during sports). ACL tears are marked by pain and swelling as well as instability. PCL ruptures can also result from a fall or a car accident that injures the front of the leg. When the outer part of the knee is struck (most likely during a football game), an MCL tear might occur. If the LCL along the inside of the knee is torn because the joint overextends inward — say, during skiing — it’s at risk of a rupture.
Sometimes a meniscus tear develops along with an ACL tear. Any unusual twisting, pivoting, or turning can tear the meniscus on either side of the knee, or the cartilage may wear down with age. The pain of a meniscus tear may cause a feeling of instability, but the joint is most likely stable.
The patella, or kneecap, is anchored by ligaments and tendons, including the quadriceps tendon that connects the quadriceps muscle to the upper shin bone. A healthy kneecap moves smoothly within the path of the patellofemoral ligaments in the front of the thigh bone. However, an injury from a sporting event or accident may dislodge the kneecap from this location, leading to instability. The patella may also be dislocated by a blow or unusual twisting motion that makes it feel unstable.
A degenerative disease, arthritis slowly wears down the protective cartilage in the knee. This may cause bits of cartilage to break off and float within the joint, causing pain and instability. Knee arthritis may also give rise to meniscus deterioration or ligament tears. If you have an arthritic knee, you may notice it locks up occasionally or prevents you from straightening your leg.
Treatment for a Wobbly Knee
Treating an unstable knee joint means first pinpointing the cause and severity of the injury. Many knee injuries can be treated conservatively with the RICE method (rest, ice, compression and elevation), nonsteroidal pain medications, and physical therapy to strengthen the muscles that support the knee, such as the quadriceps and hamstrings. Wearing a brace to stabilize the knee is also helpful.
Some serious knee injuries, such as an ACL or meniscus tear, may require surgery. During ACL surgery, the damaged ligament is reconstructed using the patient’s own tissue or tissue from another source. Meniscus tears are either trimmed or repaired in an arthroscopic procedure.
Don’t let an unstable knee prevent you from enjoying life. The doctors at New York Bone & Joint Specialists have treated a variety of knee conditions and injuries using both non-surgical and surgical methods. Contact us today for an appointment.