Our knees get a constant workout, day in and day out. Whether we are standing up, sitting down, or getting in and out of the car, our knee joints are on-call to perform constantly. So, it's no wonder that they occasionally develop issues from so much use.
One issue that results in 3 million cases in the United States alone each year? Baker's cysts.
What is a Baker's cyst?
Also known as a Baker cyst or even popliteal cyst, this fluid-filled sac forms behind the knee. This shallow depression behind the knee is known as the popliteal space.
How do these cysts form?
Where does this fluid come from that forms that bulge in the back of your knee?
You see, your body contains synovial fluid, which lubricates the knee joint so it can bend and extend easily. When the body produces too much of this fluid, there can be a buildup on the back of the knee—the Baker's cyst.
What causes the buildup?
Inflammation and knee injuries are the most common reasons this buildup occurs.
What are the symptoms of Baker's cyst?
Despite how common this condition is, most people don't know what its symptoms are, much less how to treat it. Coming up, we'll take a look at the most common symptoms of this condition as well as popular remedies people use to tackle these cysts...
Symptom #1: Swelling Behind the Knee
Swelling or a noticeable bump behind the knee is the most obvious sign of Baker's cyst.
Why does this symptom occur?
This swelling is actually a pocket of synovial fluid that has leaked out into the tissues behind your knee. This is a natural fluid lubricates joints, including the knee joint. There are times, however, when excess fluid accumulates behind the knee, causing excessive swelling.
What does the lump feel like?
When you touch the swollen area, you may feel a lump that feels somewhat like a water balloon. As you press gently, the slightly squishy feel confirms that fluid is involved.
How can someone spot this symptom?
The swelling will be most noticeable when you stand and compare the back of one knee to the other. Of course, you won't just see this cyst; you can often feel it, too...
Symptom #2: Knee Pain
Another symptom of a Baker's cyst is knee pain.
What is the pain like?
- The pain may be slight or more pronounced, making it painful to walk.
- It may be isolated behind the knee or extend into the upper calf muscle.
- The pain may increase when you bend your knee or attempt to straighten it out.
Baker's cyst alone or something else?
Remember that the pain may be caused by an underlying condition that created the cyst in the first place. For example:
- Cartilage may be damaged from osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis; the inflammation from these conditions may cause these cysts.
- Another cause could be an injury to the knee, such as a meniscus tear.
In all of these cases, treating the underlying condition as well as the cyst are key for alleviating discomfort.
What are the complications of Baker's cyst?
If you suddenly experience a sharp pain in the knee area, there is a possibility that the cyst has burst. This bursting can mean the fluid leaks into the calf. Those who notice this sharp pain and accompanying redness and further swelling should see a doctor right away.
The final symptom of these cysts?
What's another sign that someone has a Baker's cyst?...
Symptom #3: Tightness or Stiffness Behind the Knee
A Baker's cyst may cause tightness of the knee joint, resulting in stiffness.
How does a cyst limit mobility?
Due to its location, the Baker's cyst may be large enough to prevent bending or extension of the knee. Therefore, a decrease in the knee's range of motion is another tell-tale symptom of a Baker's cyst.
It's possible to alleviate the discomfort these cysts cause.
Many popular methods are simple home remedies while others require professional medical assistance. Which method is best depends on the individual. Those who have any concerns about their condition should consult a doctor to discuss the best course of action for their particular situation.
The first method is a tried-and-true remedy that helps many a condition...
Remedy #1: RICE Method
Swelling, stiffness, and pain? Oh my. The first potential remedy for these symptoms is the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) method.
Why can RICE work?
The combination of these four actions will usually reduce inflammation, which is often what leads to the actual swelling, pain, and stiffness.
How to do the RICE method.
- Rest the knee by staying off of it as much as possible. If you must move around, try using a crutch or cane to relieve some of the pressure on your leg.
- Apply a cold compress or ice pack to the back of the knee. Make sure you have a cloth between the cold pack and your skin.
- Use a compression bandage, such as a lightweight sleeve. This step can help the body reabsorb the fluid in the cyst more quickly. A compression sleeve or bandage will also help support the knee joint. Be sure the sleeve is snug but not overly tight, which can disrupt the blood flow to the area.
- Elevate your knee above your heart level, especially at night. Elevating the leg will not only reduce the strain on the knee joint but also reduce the excess swelling.
- One way to combine all four actions? Avoid putting pressure on your knee as much as possible and place a cold compress on the knee for twenty minutes at a time over a few hours. Afterward, slip on a compression sleeve or wrap the knee in compression bandages. You can leave this compression bandage or sleeve on all day, but be sure to remove it at night. Elevate your leg during the night as you sleep.
Many people use RICE in combination with the following remedy...
Remedy #2: Anti-Inflammatory Medication
This remedy may relieve the symptom fully or only provide temporary relief of the pain and inflammation.
How can OTC medications help?
Since swelling, stiffness, and pain can be attributed to some type of inflammation, an over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory medication may help.
What medications may help?
- Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- Naproxen (Aleve)
Be sure to follow the directions on the bottle, and not exceed daily recommended dosages. It is always recommended that you speak to a doctor before taking any new medications, including OTC remedies.
What about doctor-recommended therapies and treatments?
Some people prefer to skip at-home remedies and see their doctor right away. With an initial exam of the knee, your doctor may recommend any of the following remedies or treatments for Baker's cyst...
Treatment #1: Corticosteroids
One remedy the doctor may offer? Corticosteroids.
What are corticosteroids?
Corticosteroids are a drug class of steroid hormones used primarily to reduce inflammation and in some cases surpress the immune system.
How can this method help?
A corticosteroid injection can treat the pain and swelling of the Baker's cyst by reducing the amount of inflammation in the joint as well as the cyst.
What are some corticosteroids?
Examples of corticosteroids include:
How is this treatment administered?
Although these medications come in a pill form, you will most likely receive them in the form of a corticosteroid injection. The doctor will inject the corticosteroid directly into your joint to help relieve the inflammation and the pain.
How quickly will this treatment work?
This treatment may result in quick relief; however, be aware that this type of treatment will not prevent a reoccurrence of Baker's cyst.
The next method might not be for those who are particularly squeamish, although it can be quite effective.
Treatment #2: Aspiration
Another remedy for Baker's cyst is to, in a sense, deflate the fluid sac. One way to do that? Needle aspiration, which drains the cyst of the synovial fluid.
Why does this method work?
The symptoms of swelling, stiffness, and possibly even the pain will be relieved quickly as the built-up fluid is removed. As with the corticosteroid injection treatment, though, this method will not prevent a re-occurrence of a Baker's cyst.
How does this method work?
- The doctor will likely use ultrasound to find the cyst.
- Once found, the doctor will clean and numb the area.
- Then, the doctor will insert a small needle in the affected area.
- Once there, the doctor will work to remove fluid from the cyst.
- After the fluid is drained, the doctor will clean and bandage the site of entry.
- You should avoid strenuous activities for at least 24 hours.
- You will likely have a follow-up with your doctor.
In many cases, the following non-invasive method may work just as well...
Treatment #3: Physical Therapy
Physical therapy is another potential remedy for Baker's cyst.
What is physical therapy?
Physical therapy involves a trained professional guiding your body through certain movements and exercises to help manage many conditions.
Why can physical therapy help this condition?
Certain exercises and stretches practiced during therapy can help ease the swelling, the pain, and the overall stiffness caused by the Baker's cyst.
What sort of physical therapy may help with this condition?
Recommended therapy may include any or all of the following:
- Slow, gentle exercises to help improve the knee's range of motion.
- Strengthening exercises for the hamstring muscles, which are often found to be weak in many who suffer from Baker's cysts, which may be because weak hamstrings put pressure on the popliteal space (where Baker cysts occur).
- Stretching of the hamstring muscles to loosen them up. Tight hamstrings are also common in those who suffer from Baker's cysts.
Specific examples of exercises a physical therapist may recommend to alleviate the symptoms of swelling, pain, and stiffness caused by a Baker's cyst include:
- Seated hamstring stretches: While seated, keep your knees straight and rest your heels on the floor. Slowly lean forward until you feel stretching behind your thighs and knees.
- Heel slide: While lying on your back, with knees straight, slide the heel of the affected leg toward your buttocks as you gently bend your knee.
- Standing calf stretch: While standing near a wall, with your arms stretched out and touching the wall, step forward with one foot. Keep the knee of your other leg straight. Lean forward toward the wall until you feel a slight stretch in the back of your straight leg.
- Wall squat: With your back up against a wall and your feet approximately a foot away from the wall, slowly slide your body downwards. Keep your back up against the wall as you do so. Hold for 3-5 seconds, then return to your upright position.
- Side-stepping: Place a resistance band around your ankles. With your knees slightly bent, place your weight on your heels and slowly step out to the side with one foot. Then, let the other foot follow without easing the tension in the band.
Your physical therapist may also recommend other low-impact exercises, such as yoga, walking, or even Pilates. Just make sure to clear all new exercises with a licensed professional beforehand.
The following treatment method is typically reserved only for severe cases of Baker's cyst...
Treatment #4: Surgery
When all other remedies fail to provide relief, surgery is the next step in healing a Baker's cyst.
When is surgery necessary?
Your doctor may also recommend surgery in specific instances where you are experiencing severe pain, or if the size of the cyst makes it difficult for you to move your knee at all, causing discomfort as well as mobility issues.
What will the surgery entail?
- In many instances, the surgeon may only need to make a small cut on your knee.
- However, if extensive knee joint damage is discovered, the cyst may need to be removed and repairs made to the joint itself. In this case, the doctor inserts a thin, flexible, fiber-optic tube (arthroscope) through a small incision into the knee joint o deal with the problem.
What's most important to remember about treating this condition?...
Treat the Source of the Cyst
Ultimately, the best remedy for treating and curing a Baker's cyst will involve treating what caused the accumulation of synovial fluid, causing the cyst in the first place.
Different causes require different treatments.
As mentioned previously, a Baker's cyst is likely the result of another condition within the body. Conditions and injuries that can result in this uncomfortable cyst include:
- A type of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis
- Damage to the knee, such as a ligament tear
What happens if these cysts aren't treated?
If not treated, Baker's cysts may reoccur over and over again.
How is the root cause diagnosed?
Your doctor will need to review what other symptoms you have to get to the root of the problem. That means an exam will likely not be limited to just your knee. Instead, your doctor will be looking for other clues to what is behind that Baker's cyst, which can mean a full body exam in some cases.
Being self-aware can help a doctor make a proper diagnosis.
You will need to work with your doctor on determining the underlying cause of the Baker's cyst. For example:
- If you have already been diagnosed with a form of arthritis, seek out methods to treat it before the next Baker's cyst can occur.
- If you are athletic, be sure to ask yourself if you have recently participated in a sport that left your knee in pain afterward. If so, it could be a meniscus tear or ligament tear of some sort; these conditions can lead to these cysts.
- Let your doctor know if you recently received a blow to the knee, such as in a minor car accident. This trauma could also lead to a Baker's cyst.
How is reoccurrence prevented?
In order to prevent a reoccurrence, finding a solution to the underlying cause is the only answer. If you are dealing with a Baker's cyst, contact your doctor and be on the way to relief!