Many athletes experience knee swelling at some point, and it’s not always clear why it happens. The causes of this condition—also known as effusion, or water on the knee—can vary. Some of the possible reasons for a swollen knee include:
- Injury to the bones, ligaments, tendons, or other tissues
- Osteoarthritis that causes degeneration of cartilage in the knee
- Bursitis in the knee joint, often caused by overuse
Regardless of the cause, swelling of any type can be uncomfortable, especially if it limits range of motion in the joint. As an athlete, you probably want to reduce knee swelling as quickly as possible to return to normal activity levels. Follow these tips to address a swollen knee and help you get back on your feet with minimum delay.
1. Exercises to Reduce Knee Swelling
The best exercises for a swollen knee will depend on the cause of the swelling, so if you’re not sure, contact your doctor for recommendations. In general, knee exercises should focus on improving the function of the joint without contributing to additional swelling. Some such exercises may include:
- Low-impact cardio like swimming or cycling
- Resistance exercises in a pool and chair exercises with little or no weight
- Hamstring, calf, and quadricep stretches to improve range of motion
If you experience pain during any of these exercises, consult a doctor or physical therapist to get a proper diagnosis and recommendations for the appropriate exercises for your condition.
2. What to Avoid with a Swollen Knee
Any time you experience swelling, there are certain activities you should try to avoid so you don’t exacerbate it:
Don’t Use Heat
Although therapeutic heat can be comforting in some situations, it should not be used to help reduce swelling and inflammation. In fact, the application of heat can actually increase swelling because it increases blood flow to the joint. On the other hand, applying therapeutic cold can help reduce knee swelling.
Avoid High-Impact Activities
Although it might be difficult to get out of your usual athletic routine for a few days, it’s not a good idea to continue high-impact activity with a swollen knee. Give yourself a few days to rest your knee. If you must continue training, try switching your focus to upper body strengthening and core work.
If a swollen knee is a regular occurrence for you, it could be an overuse issue. First, rule out an underlying injury by consulting a doctor. If no injury is discovered, try changing up your routine to give your knees a break. Do more cross-training, try another sport, or add conditioning exercises to help strengthen the muscles and tissues around the knee to prevent future swelling.
3. Recovery Time from a Swollen Knee
The recovery time for a swollen knee depends on the type and severity of the injury. For minor inflammation, the swelling could go down in a matter of a day or two. However, if the swelling is linked to a larger issue, like a torn ACL or joint sprain, the recovery time could take weeks or more. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to reduce the swelling more quickly, such as resting, elevating your leg, and using compression therapy.
4. How Compression Therapy Accelerates Recovery Time
Intermittent Pneumatic Compression Therapy (IPC) is used to provide even pressure around an injured area, helping to pump edema away while stimulating the flow of oxygen. This therapy increases lymphatic flow, decreases swelling, and accelerates tissue healing. IPC has been shown to be most effective when combined with cryotherapy.
Is your knee swelling due to knee surgery? Read our guide to knee surgery recovery to learn what you can do to help your knee recovery more quickly.