The kneecap, or patella, is one of three bones that compose the knee joint. Without proper care or through injury or overuse, the kneecap can become stressed or damaged, leading to pain, swelling or other problems. Although some cases of kneecap pain and swelling are manageable at home, symptoms that are severe; are accompanied by numbness, fever or tingling; or continue for more than one week require evaluation by a medical professional.
Nearly 1/3 of adults over the age of 45 years report some degree of knee pain, according to MayoClinic.com. In fact, the knee is treated more often by orthopedic surgeons than any other site on the body, notes the eHealthMD website, and more than 11 million doctor visits are made every year because of knee problems. Athletes are most at risk of suffering from knee pain and swelling, especially those who participate in contact sports.
Injury, infection and numerous medical disorders can all cause pain and swelling of the kneecap. Symptoms that occur just below the kneecap may indicate a tendon injury or Osgood-Schlatter disease, which is a syndrome caused by overuse of the knee. Bursitis, which is the inflammation of the small fluid sacs inside the knee, can cause pain, redness, swelling and warmth. A dislocated kneecap causes intense pain and swelling and makes walking difficult. Other possible causes of knee pain and swelling include ACL injuries, which are a type of ligament damage; rheumatoid arthritis; osteoarthritis; gout; and pseudogout.
Diagnosis of the underlying cause of knee pain and swelling is difficult because of the large number of possible causes and the similarity of their symptoms. MayoClinic.com explains that a thorough medical history and physical examination of the affected knee often plays a more significant role in diagnosis than imaging or other tests.
An MRI test is useful in helping to diagnose injuries to soft tissue, and an X-ray can detect most cases of degenerative joint disease and bone fractures. A CT scan may be ordered if a loose piece of cartilage or another bone disorder is suspected. Blood tests and arthrocentesis, which involves removing a sample of fluid from the joint, can assist in diagnosing any underlying medical causes of knee pain and swelling.
Treatment of kneecap pain and swelling depends on the underlying cause. A combination of protection, rest, compression, ice and elevation helps treat most cases associated with overuse and minor injury, according to the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, aspirin and naproxen, can help ease pain and reduce inflammation, but these medications may cause side effects when taken over prolonged periods.
Physical therapy may be useful to strengthen the muscles around the knee to improve knee stability, and surgery is effective at repairing joint and cartilage damage, reconstructing damaged ligaments or tendons and replacing extensively damaged joints with a prosthesis. Orthotics, braces and corticosteroid injections are other useful tools when fighting knee pain and swelling.
Lifestyle changes can help prevent kneecap pain and swelling, speed recovery from existing problems and slow degenerative damage. MayoClinic.com states that losing weight is essential if you are overweight or obese, as excessive weight strains the knee joints and increases the risk of tendon injuries and osteoarthritis. Regular exercise, well-fitting shoes and proper sports equipment help strengthen the knee and reduce the risk of injury.