The Role of Physical Therapy in Swollen Knee Recovery: Exercises and Techniques

Swollen knees are a prevalent condition affecting individuals of all ages. The knee joint is a complex structure that bears full body weight but is not as stable as the hips or ankles. 

As a result, this lack of stability makes the knee joint more susceptible to injuries and swelling. The muscles and ligaments surrounding the knee play a crucial role in maintaining balance and stability while preventing knee injuries.

A swollen knee results from excess fluid accumulation within and around the knee joint. While several home remedies may help alleviate the symptoms, physical therapy is an effective and long-lasting treatment option for swollen knees

Physical therapy can help improve strength and flexibility in the muscles and ligaments surrounding the knee, ultimately reducing the risk of swelling and injury in the future. A study has proved that performing physical exercises under the guidance of professional therapists can improve knee function, balance, and strength and reduce swelling in the long haul.  

Read on to discover more about the significance of physical therapy for swollen knee recovery.

Causes of Swollen Knee

Various factors, from injuries to diseases, can induce the onset of swollen knees. Some of them are listed out below.

  • Injuries

Injuries like torn ligaments and cartilage can cause joint fluid to accumulate in and around the knee.  

  • Sports

Individuals who engage in vigorous sports activities involving twisting the knee, like basketball, are likely to notice swelling in the knee joints.

  • Obesity

Research has shown that excess weight adds stress to your knee joints and results in the degeneration of the tissues. This results in frequent episodes of knee swelling.

  • Diseases

Other orthopaedic disorders like arthritis, gout, bursitis and baker’s cyst might cause potential swelling in the knee. 

Symptoms of Swollen Knee

  • Swelling

When you compare the injured knee to the healthy joints, the area around your kneecap will have visible swelling.

  • Pain

Based on the cause of the build-up of fluid in the joints, the pain in the knee differs from mild aches to the point where it will be impossible to bear weight.

  • Stiffness

When the knee joint is filled with excess fluid, you won’t be able to bend or straighten your knee joints completely.

Diagnosis of Swollen Knee

  • Physical Examination

Your healthcare provider will start the diagnostic procedure by examining your detailed medical history, followed by a thorough physical examination to know the cause of the swelling.

  • Imaging Tests

Imaging tests like MRI scans (radio waves and a strong magnetic field), X-rays and ultrasounds (sound waves) are recommended to determine where the injury is located in the tendon, ligament, bone and other soft tissues.  

Physical Therapy for Swollen Knee Recovery

The physical therapy program will be designed depending on the cause of your swollen knee and how severe the pain is. Your therapist will analyse your condition and recommend the most appropriate plan with specific exercises to reduce swelling and pain. 

  • Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (RICE)

The primary treatment for mild or moderate knee swelling is R.I.C.E. The basic protocol of the approach is

  • Rest will ease your swelling joints, giving them time to repair and recover naturally. Take a short break from sports and other activities. However, instead of completely immobile, try to gently straighten or flex the knee joints to keep up the range of motion.
  • Ice therapy is an effective yet easy treatment for a swollen knee. Apply a cold compress to the affected area for around 20 minutes several times daily. It slows down fluid accumulation in knee joints that contribute to the swelling.
  • Compression is wrapping the swollen knee in an elastic bandage to reduce inflammation. The compression bandage also supports the knee and protects it from various injuries.
  • Elevation of the affected knee above the heart aids in alleviating the swelling and discomfort in the joint.

Strengthening Exercises

  • Quadriceps Sets

Quadriceps set exercises to focus on all four muscle groups in the front of the leg, including rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and vastus intermedius. These patterns aid in straightening the knees and allow you to perform regular lower-body movements with ease and improved flexibility.

  • Straight Leg Raises

Adding the straight leg raises to your physical therapy program will increase your strength while improving overall stability, agility and flexibility. It also strengthens the muscles on your thigh and the region around your hip, effectively reducing swelling. 

  • Hamstring Curls

Hamstring curls are one of the effective exercises for a swollen knee that also reduce the risk of injury and decrease the pain. The exercise activates your quadriceps, calf muscles and glutes during the pattern. Strong hamstrings can withstand the high impact of exercises and stabilize your joints. 

  • Calf Raises

Calf raises stabilize your feet and ankle, ensure proper balance and reduce the risk of accidental falls. Generally, weak calves are the primary reason for knee pain and swelling. Therefore, implementing the calves raises in your exercise routine will make your joints function properly and efficiently.

Range of Motion Exercises

  • Knee Flexion and Extension 

Flexion and extension are popular knee physical therapy exercises, where flexion involves the movement that rescues the angle between your shin and thigh while the extension increases the angle. The exercise reinforces the biomechanics of your knee joints and reduces the risk of developing acute or chronic injury while retaining greater mobility.

  • Ankle Pumps

Ankle pump exercises are simple yet efficient exercises that strengthen your ankles and improve your stability, preventing the development of swelling or stiffness in your knee joints. It will also increase the flexibility of your joints and boost blood circulation to the lower leg.

  • Seated Knee Extension

Seated knee extension specifically targets the quadriceps muscles making it stronger and easier for you to recover from the swollen knee and improve physical performance from various rehabilitation knee injuries. 

  • Straight Leg Raises with Ankle Weights

Performing straight leg raises in physiotherapy will strengthen your thigh muscles, hip flexors, and lower extremities. It will keep the muscles engaged and tight, effectively reducing the chances of injury and discomfort. 

Balance and Coordination Exercises

  • Single Leg Balance

Having imbalance issues in your limbs will push your body to compensate for the entire weight on one side, resulting in alignment problems. Single-leg balance is a beginner exercise to improve the balance and coordination of the leg, ankle, knee and hips. It promotes the strength of the joints and muscles. 

  • Step-Ups

Step-ups are generally a good lower-body conditioning exercise in physical therapy. This exercise focuses on the leg muscles, including the quadriceps and hamstrings. Moreover, the movement pattern will also improve your proprioception and balance, preventing injury in knee joints.

  • Lateral Step-Ups

The lateral step-up exercise provides unilateral strength for the legs, giving you better balance and reducing weakness that will limit your mobility. Doing the exercise will also improve your stability, endurance, balance and coordination of these muscles.


Every individual will experience swelling and pain in their knee at some point in their levels. The swelling and severe pain will keep you from living your life to the fullest potential. When left untreated, the swelling will cause permanent damage to the joint tissues, bone and cartilage.

In its early stage, your healthcare professional suggests a combination of rest and medications to ease the swelling and pain. Prevention is the key to avoiding swelling and degeneration of knee joints. Hence, an effective and individualized physical therapy program will improve your balance and enhance your range of motion.

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