Doctors diagnose knee problems based on the findings of the medical history, physical exam, and diagnostic tests.
During the medical history, the doctor asks how long symptoms have been present and what problems you are having using your knee. In addition, the doctor will ask about any injury, condition, or health problem that might be causing the problem.
The doctor bends, straightens, rotates (turns), or presses on the knee to feel for injury and to determine how well the knee moves and where the pain is located. The doctor may ask you to stand, walk, or squat to help assess the knee’s function.
Depending on the findings of the medical history and physical exam, the doctor may use one or more tests to determine the nature of a knee problem. Some of the more commonly used tests include:
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- X ray (radiography) – a procedure in which an x ray beam is passed through the knee to produce a two-dimensional picture of the bones.
- Computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan – a painless procedure in which x rays are passed through the knee at different angles, detected by a scanner, and analyzed by a computer. CAT scan images show soft tissues such as ligaments or muscles more clearly than do conventional x rays. The computer can combine individual images to give a three-dimensional view of the knee.
- Bone scan (radionuclide scanning) – a technique for creating images of bones on a computer screen or on film. Prior to the procedure, a harmless radioactive material is injected into your bloodstream. The material collects in the bones, particularly in abnormal areas of the bones, and is detected by a scanner.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – a procedure that uses a powerful magnet linked to a computer to create pictures of areas inside the knee. During the procedure, your leg is placed in a cylindrical chamber where energy from a powerful magnet (rather than x rays) is passed through the knee. An MRI is particularly useful for detecting soft tissue damage.
- Arthroscopy – a surgical technique in which the doctor manipulates a small, lighted optic tube (arthroscope) that has been inserted into the joint through a small incision in the knee. Images of the inside of the knee joint are projected onto a television screen.
- Joint aspiration – a procedure that uses a syringe to remove fluid buildup in a joint to reduce swelling and relieve pressure. A laboratory analysis of the fluid can determine the presence of a fracture, an infection, or an inflammatory response.
- Biopsy – the examination of a piece of tissue under the microscope.