Physical Therapy to Help Your Knee

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on August 28, 2022
3 min read

Did you hurt your knee or have surgery? Or is it achy and stiff because of arthritis? Either way, you might feel like the last thing you should do is get on your feet and move your joint around. But often physical therapy (PT) is what your doctor suggests to get your strength back and put you on the road to recovery.

PT, or rehab as some people call it, can ease your muscle and joint pain. You'll work with a physical therapist, a licensed professional who uses a variety of methods to help strengthen your muscles and make your body feel and move better.

Some things you might need are:

  • Stretches and exercises
  • Ice and heat
  • Ultrasound massage
  • Electrical nerve or muscle stimulation

When you get physical therapy depends on the cause of your pain. Sometimes it’s all you need for treatment. You might not need surgery.

If you do have an operation, your doctor will likely suggest at least a few weeks of therapy afterward to help you recover. They might recommend a specific physical therapy office, or you can find one near you by checking the American Physical Therapy Association’s website.

You'll work one on one with your physical therapist to come up with your treatment plan. They'll discuss ways to rebuild the strength and movement in your leg and knee, so you can feel better and go back to doing the things you love to do.

At your first visit, your therapist will look at your leg and see how well your knee bends, straightens, and moves. They'll also see if:

  • It’s hard for you to balance
  • You have pain in your knee
  • It hurts when you move your lower leg back and forth
  • It’s hard to stand on one leg
  • You have weak muscles in the front and back of your thigh, which support the knee

To figure out your trouble spots, they may ask you to hop on one leg or take a short walk on a treadmill. They may recommend you use crutches, a walker, or wear special shoes to prevent falls at home while you recover.

You'll start to work on making your leg muscles stronger, which takes some of the stress off your knee and cut your pain. Your therapist will give you exercises to do at home and show you how to practice them safely.

Strength training exercises are a key part of the PT workout. For instance, you may need to do some of these moves:

  • Hamstring curls
  • Single leg dips
  • Step-ups
  • Straight leg lifts
  • Wall squats
  • Balancing exercises

You usually start with just a few at a time and then do more as you get stronger. You may need to add weights to make your muscles work harder.

Tell your therapist if something hurts. You might have a little discomfort, but stop if you feel a lot of pain.

You could feel stiff or sore after your therapy, so plan ahead for some time to rest. Ask your doctor or therapist how to get relief from this achiness.

Your physical therapist may also use electricity to help improve your leg muscle strength and knee movement. It's a method called "TENS," short for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation.

They'll put sticky patches called electrodes on the front of the thigh above your knee. A wire connects each one to the TENS machine. They turn it on, and when they do, tiny electrical signals tingle the nerves in your muscle. This boosts the flow of your blood and helps ease pain.

Your doctor or physical therapist will tell you how often you need to go to therapy. It might be several times a week for 6 weeks or longer. The amount depends on how much your knee hurts and whether or not you had surgery.

Your therapist will stay in touch with your doctor and discuss your progress. Together, the three of you can decide when you feel ready to scale back on sessions.