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When to Seek Treatment for Knee Injuries in Young Athletes

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When to Seek Treatment for Knee Injuries in Young Athletes

Jul 07, 2020
Knee injuries are extremely common for young athletes in any sport. Whether it comes from a hard hit or a bad pivot, many knee injuries can be serious and may need immediate treatment. Sports medicine physician Dr. Julia Rawlings explains what symptoms you need to be on the lookout for to make sure your athlete can get back in the game.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: How to handle a knee injury. Dr. Julia Rawlings practices primary care sports medicine and also pediatric emergency medicine, and she is one of the physicians that you would find at the walk-in orthopedic clinic at University of Utah Health. I wanted to talk about knee injuries and young athletes actually. What are some common ways that young athletes can injure their knees? What specific sports or activities do you see?

Dr. Rawlings: Yeah. So it's really common to have a knee injury when you're playing sports, particularly contact sports. But severe injuries, including the ACL, don't always have to be from contact. So we typically see knee injuries that are acute, meaning they happen from a trauma, when you're doing an activity where there's either contact or you change directions quickly, so you're pivoting, you're shifting, you're changing your weight, and the knee can kind of buckle on you and get injured. In people that do more endurance-type sports, like cross country runners, we tend to see more chronic knee pain just from overuse.

Interviewer: Got you. So you kind of covered some of the common injuries to the knee. What could be handled at home without a clinic visit? And then we'll get to when you should perhaps consider coming in.

Dr. Rawlings: Yeah. So starting with an acute injury, meaning that's something you were out doing your sport, you were doing something, and all of a sudden you felt the knee pop, or you twisted it, or something happened. A couple of clues that I would give to go ahead and come in to be seen is, one, if you're having a hard time walking on your leg, then we would really like you to be seen sooner rather than later. We'd like to get X-rays and make sure there's nothing that's broken and then do a good examine and check out the ligaments and the meniscus of the knee.

Another clue is if your knee gets pretty swollen, then that means that there's something significant going on in your knee that should be seen sooner rather than later. Two more other clues, things that I like to ask people about and look for. If your knee feels like it's buckling under you, it's giving out when you walk, then there's the potential that every time it buckles, that we're doing more damage. And in that case, we'd like to get you on crutches and get you into a knee brace. Or if the knee is getting stuck or locked, meaning you can't bend it or you can't straighten it very well without kind of forcing it, those are all things that we'd want to see you sooner rather than later for.

Interviewer: And then when somebody comes into the clinic with some of those more serious symptoms, as you said, what does the clinic do?

Dr. Rawlings: Yeah. So if you have, say, a big swollen knee and we're worried about bigger injuries to the ACL or to the meniscus, something like that, what we would generally do is start off with X-rays, make sure there's nothing that's broken, and then we would do our exam, get a feel for what we think is going on, and then generally get you set up in a knee brace that's appropriate for the injury you have, plus or minus crutches. And then often, patients with significant injuries we'll get set up for an MRI to check out the soft tissue structures, which we can't see on X-ray, and get a definitive diagnosis. And then depending on what we see on our exam, we'll either get you set up with one of the non-operative sports medicine providers for follow-up or our sports medicine surgeons. My practice myself is I typically just let people know what their MRI shows, and then depending on what they need done, I'll then schedule the appointment with the appropriate follow-up person.

Interviewer: And when people come in, how often would you say that they could just come into the clinic and that's kind of it? It's just going to take a little bit of rest, and they're going to recover from their injury.

Dr. Rawlings: You know, it depends a little bit, I think, on the age demographic. So we do see a fair amount of people that come in with an acute knee injury that have just flared arthritis, and they don't actually have an injury to the ligament or something that we would need to do an MRI or surgery for. And those patients we really treat with physical therapy, maybe a steroid injection, and kind of getting them back to functioning, hopefully, so that we can prolong the longevity of their knee. In those cases, then, yeah, all they need really is just that visit in the orthopedic injury clinic and then a follow-up appointment down the road with a primary care sports medicine person or a sports medicine surgeon.

Interviewer: Are there any final thoughts you would want a listener to know about the clinic, or knee injuries, and how to handle that or take care of it?

Dr. Rawlings: I think definitely when in doubt, especially when it's an injury that's happened within the last day or two, come on in. We'll be happy to take a look at it. And if you're getting a chronic injury from training for a marathon, or in kids, they can often get growth plate injuries, again, if they've happened in the last three months, we're happy to see you in injury clinic for more of a chronic developing problem as well.