Climbing stairs, walking down the street, hiking up a mountain, even standing up from a chair: all of these movements are made possible by your knees. When knees start to ache, it’s crucial to know how to help arthritis is knees. Here are the best tips to get started with.
How to help arthritis in knees: The basics
Your knees are the largest, strongest joint in the body. Knowing a bit about the anatomy can help to appreciate not only their strength but also their unique vulnerabilities.
Knee joints consist of three bones. The femur (thighbone) connects to the tibia and the patella (kneecap). Cartilage wraps around the end of each bone to protect and smooth movement where the three bones meet.
Two wedges of cartilage called the meniscus act as shock absorbers as the femur presses down into the tibia. Synovial fluid lubricates all of the cartilage in the joint and helps with smooth movement.
In addition, stabilizing ligaments and tendons include:
- Lateral and medial collateral ligaments: Stabilize side-to-side movement
- Posterior and anterior cruciate ligament: Frames movement forward and backwards
Knees absorb the impact of your upper body coming down on the lower leg: every day, all day. This means that everything you do—walking, running, hiking up a mountain, or simply standing up from a seat—relies on healthy knees.
Causes of knee arthritis and pain
The most common cause of pain is knee osteoarthritis. Known as a wear-and-tear disease, osteoarthritis occurs as the knee joint gets used over time. The structures that once supported and eased movement (e.g., tendons, cartilage, and synovial fluid) may begin to wear out, causing knee pain with movement.
Other common causes of knee pain include the following:
- Injury: Injury such as torn ligaments and tendons, bone fractures, bursitis, and tendinitis can cause knee pain both at rest and during activity.
- Mechanical problems: Mechanical problems occur when something in the joint fails. This might include dislocated kneecap, iliotibial band syndrome, or a foreign body in the joint (e.g., a broken bit of bone or cartilage).
- Other forms of arthritis: There are over 100 forms of arthritis, many of which can cause knee arthritis pain. In addition to osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and septic arthritis can cause knee pain.
Finally, a less common cause of knee pain is patellofemoral pain syndrome. This pain between the patella and the femur is most often seen in young athletes but can develop as a consequence of arthritis in the kneecap.
Risk factors for knee pain
Anyone with knees can have knee pain, but there are some risk factors that increase your chances. Carrying extra weight is a primary risk factor, as is having a job that places lots of stress on the knees. Professional athletes and enthusiastic amateurs alike are all at risk of knee pain due to wear-and-tear and injury also.
Other risk factors include:
- Previous injury
- Lack of flexibility or strength in supporting muscles
How to help arthritis in knees
If you are experiencing severe knee arthritis that is impacting your quality of life, it’s important to talk to your doctor first. They can help diagnose any underlying causes and design a treatment plan to improve your daily life.
For mild to moderate pain, here are our tips for how to help arthritis in the knees. As always, talk with your doctor before starting a new treatment.
1. Just add ice
When knee pain flares up, one of the simplest things to do is to ice the inflammation. Yes, extended days of rest can actually increase stiffness and pain, but in the acute phases of knee pain, ice can really help.
Try a 20-minutes-on, 20-minutes-off program of icing for a few hours to see if that relieves pain.
2. Watch your diet
While changes to the diet alone are not enough to completely ease knee arthritis pain, it is a great (and easy) place to start. Not only does maintaining a healthy diet improve overall levels of health and energy, the food you eat can also help treat pain and inflammation.
How? Focusing on anti-inflammatory foods means choosing healthy whole grains, dark leafy greens, and lean proteins as the foundation of your diet. Add in foods and spices with natural anti-inflammatory properties. These foods like include turmeric, tart cherries, avocado, and even dark chocolate.
Finding a great anti-inflammatory cookbook can make eating to ease knee pain a snap.
Avoiding processed food, trans fats, and sugars can also help manage weight, improve health, and ease inflammation in the body.
3. Keep an eye on your BMI
Suddenly, being just ten pounds over your target body-mass index can mean an additional forty pounds of pressure with every step!
4. Quit smoking
By now, everyone knows that smoking is dangerous to overall health, but it also increases the risk of knee pain. Smoking increases the chances of cartilage loss, which then increases the chances of developing osteoarthritis knee pain. Smokers are also more likely to be obese and have comorbid health conditions that contribute to poor health outcomes and high mortality rate.
Quitting smoking is arguably the best thing you can do for yourself.
5. Start walking
Even when your joints feel their most stiff and sore, a little movement can go a long way. Walking for knee pain helps you maintain a healthy BMI, builds muscles in the lower body, and provides good overall exercise.
If you have knee pain, choose good shoes for support. Take walks on level, sturdy terrain that is not too hard (or too soft, like sand). Start a walking program slowly, adding either time or increasing the pace as you feel stronger.
Walking with a friend can help keep you motivated, as can incorporating extra walking in your daily life. Park the car farther from the entrance to buildings, walk to pick up a few items at the store, or add another walk to your dog’s schedule. They’ll thank you for it, and so will your knees!
6. Consider meditative exercise
Meditative exercise like yoga or t’ai chi can both help ease knee pain. Why? Focusing on proper alignment, balanced muscular engagement, and conscious breathing have the following research-based benefits:
- Yoga increases the volume of grey matter in the brain, which builds resilience in chronic pain patients
- Yoga triggers a relaxation response, helping to moderate the emotional impact of pain
- Finally, yoga reduces inflammation in the body
- T’ai chi builds muscle strength, improves balance, and increases flexibility
Both yoga and t’ai chi can be adapted for any skill or fitness level, and neither require special equipment. Read more about incorporating yoga for arthritis into your routine here.
7. Keep movement low impact (and full-body)
Maybe yoga or t’ai chi are not for you, but it’s important to move your body. Any full-body, low-impact exercise can help ease knee pain. Try swimming, or look online for low-impact workouts that get you moving, regardless of where you start.
8. Use a brace
Knee braces bring stability to knees in pain, especially during exercise. Your doctor or physical therapist can suggest the best knee brace for you.
9. Get a gait analysis
Sometimes knee pain is a matter of an improper or imbalanced way of moving. A gait analysis looks at the way you move your body and suggests corrections in alignment (or even footwear) to help.
Talk to your doctor, a physical therapist, or even a high-quality running store for help with this.
10. Visit a physical therapist
Physical therapists work with your doctor to design specific exercises for knee rehabilitation. Many of these will focus on lengthening and strengthening the supporting muscles of the upper and lower legs, such as quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves.
Even one visit to learn the proper form for knee arthritis exercises can help support your recovery.
11. Consider medications
Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen sodium provide arthritis pain relief for mild to moderate pain. It’s important to follow the dosage directions carefully, as too much can cause gastrointestinal upset or liver damage. In conjunction with other therapies and exercise, though, NSAIDs can help you move comfortably through your day, even with knee arthritis.
Further, if your knee pain is a result of septic arthritis, your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to get the infection under control. An infected joint will not allow much movement and can cause serious damage. Antibiotics treat the infection to ease swelling and pain.
12. Explore supplements and natural remedies
Supplements for knee osteoarthritis may increase production of synovial fluid in the knee joint. This helps smooth out rough movement that could be causing knee pain. Talk to your doctor before adding these into your regimen.
13. Try TENS
TENS, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, uses electrodes placed on the skin to deliver a mild electrical current to the nerves. This current replaces the pain signals sent to your brain with a tingling sensation.
TENS is a non-invasive treatment for knee pain that is controlled by the patient (and a good therapy to try before exploring more invasive options).
14. Talk to your doctor about knee joint injections
Knee joint injections should only be explored when more conservative treatments for knee pain have proven ineffective. Before the procedure, your doctor will inject a numbing agent to reduce pain, followed by a corticosteroid to decrease inflammation. They may also discuss options like PRP injections.
While injections may work to decrease pain, knee joint injections do not treat any underlying knee pain causes or halt progressive joint deterioration. Still, when combined with a healthy diet, regular exercise, physical therapy, and other lifestyle changes, they can provide profound relief. Learn more about this option in the following video.
15. Consider surgery
When all other treatment options have failed, knee replacement surgery may be helpful.
It’s important to note that some people still experience pain after knee replacement. Talk to your doctor to assess the potential risks of this option. It should only be used after other less invasive measures have failed and as a last resort.
16. Find a new location
Our final recommendation may not be possible for some people with knee arthritis, but sometimes a change of scenery (and weather) helps ease chronic pain.
Some of the best places to live with knee arthritis include those with steady, temperate weather and low humidity. If you’ve already been considering a move, think about finding a location that could help ease your pain.
How to help arthritis in knees? Find a trusted pain doctor
Finally, the best way find relief is to work with a pain doctor you trust. If you’re in Arizona, we can help. The Arizona Pain team knows how to help arthritis in knees, designing comprehensive, individualized treatment plans to help you get your life back.