How Knee Arthritis Is Treated

Knee arthritis is extremely common, especially as you age, and can prevent you from participating in your daily activities. While there are many different types of arthritis, the most frequently seen variety in the knee is osteoarthritis (OA), which typically causes pain and stiffness as you bend or straighten the knee.

Fortunately, there are a wide variety of treatment options available for osteoarthritis which are detailed in the sections below.

Woman having knee trauma during the morning run

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Home Remedies and Lifestyle

OA often comes on gradually and its symptoms can ebb and flow over time. While it is wise to speak to a physician about any symptoms you experience, there are several steps you can take at home to help manage your knee arthritis.

The RICE Method

One of the most basic tools that can be used to combat the symptoms of osteoarthritis at home is the RICE principle. This acronym, which stands for Rest-Ice-Compression-Elevation, is one of the most basic ways to treat the inflammation that OA can cause in your knee:

  • Rest: Give yourself a break from any aggravating or strenuous activities to help decrease the pain you are experiencing.
  • Ice: Treat the affected knee with an ice pack for 10 to 20 minutes per session, three or more times each day, which will also help reduce the inflammation in your leg.
  • Compression: Use a compression sleeve or an ACE-style wrap to help decrease swelling and stiffness. It is important, however, that the elastic dressing not be too snug as this can impair the circulation in your leg.
  • Elevation: Elevate your leg above your heart any time you are sitting, which can help combat any swelling you are experiencing. It does this by utilizing gravity to drain the fluid from the knee joint.

Weight Loss

One of the most effective ways to combat the symptoms of OA at home is to maintain a healthy body weight. Extra body weight places excessive stresses on an already arthritic joint and can contribute to more frequent and intense OA flare-ups. 

What Is Considered Overweight?

If you're body mass index (BMI) is 25 or higher, you are considered overweight.

To lose weight, modify your diet and incorporate low-impact aerobic and strengthening exercises into your daily routine.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

If you are experiencing a flare-up of arthritis-related pain in your knee, several over-the-counter (OTC) medications may be able to help. It is important to speak to your doctor first, however, as they may cause unintended side effects in people with other health concerns.

Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatories (NSAIDs)

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs are one type of medication that is frequently utilized by people with OA in their knees.

This class of medicine—which includes ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen—helps to decrease the inflammation associated with joint degeneration. In doing so, it can help to reduce any pain, swelling, or stiffness you may be feeling.

NSAID Warning

It is important, however, to use caution when taking NSAIDs if you have any gastrointestinal, bleeding, or kidney issues as this type of medication may cause adverse side effects.

Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen, also known as Tylenol, is another commonly utilized OTC medication for treating knee OA. This medicine helps alleviate the pain associated with cartilage degeneration without causing unintended side effects on the stomach or kidney. Because of this, it may be able to be taken by people who are unable to tolerate NSAIDs.

Acetaminophen and Your Liver

Acetaminophen can have adverse effects on the liver, particularly if taken in high doses. Because of this, the medication should be not be consumed by people with liver damage or if you are drinking alcohol.

Prescription Medication

OTC medications can be useful to address the symptoms of arthritis. In some cases, however, they are either ineffective or inappropriate for treating your joint issue. In these circumstances, a prescription medication may be necessary. The most commonly prescribed options are detailed below.

Selective NSAIDs

One type of medication that is utilized when OTC options are not appropriate is a selective NSAID. This class of prescription drugs, which includes brands like Celebrex and Mobic, has been shown to be effective in the short-term treatment of knee OA symptoms.

Selective NSAIDs vs. OTC NSAIDs

Selective NSAIDs:

  • Do not block the production of a stomach-protecting compound called prostaglandin. Because of this, these drugs do not have the same adverse gastrointestinal side effects
  • Do not impact your blood’s ability to clot which makes them more appealing for individuals with bleeding disorders.

Both of these are a concern with OTC NSAIDs.

Opioid Analgesics

In rare instances when your symptoms are unable to be controlled by other medications or when surgery is not an option, opioid analgesic medications (also known as narcotics) may be prescribed to manage your arthritis. This class of pain medication—which includes drugs like oxycodone and morphine—can be effective in reducing the pain associated with this condition in very specific individuals.

Addiction Warning

Narcotics are extremely addictive and should not be prescribed chronically or to those with prior substance abuse problems. Instead, they are meant solely to provide short-term pain relief during periods of intense pain.

In addition, narcotics can cause side effects like:

  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Confusion

Because of these side effects, it is important to use these medications with caution.

Surgeries and Specialist-Driven Procedures

In some situations, a flare-up of arthritis cannot be managed with home-remedies or medication alone. In these cases, one of several specialist-guided interventions may be necessary.

Because the options range from conservative to invasive, it is best to work with your doctor to identify which (if any) are appropriate for your specific condition.

Physical Therapy

One of the most effective ways to relieve the pain and stiffness associated with knee OA without having surgery is to participate in physical therapy (PT).

Your physical therapist can help select exercises that:

  • Build strength in your hip and knee muscles
  • Support the arthritic joint
  • Improve your knee range of motion by increasing the flexibility in your leg muscles

Individuals with knee OA who undergo physical therapy have been shown to improve their daily function without the adverse side effects associated with other medications or interventions.

Corticosteroid Injection

Corticosteroid (cortisone) injections are another common treatment for the pain associated with OA. This class of steroid medication, which is injected into the affected joint by a physician, is used to reduce inflammation and decrease the pain you are experiencing.

This type of treatment can be extremely effective in the moment, however, the benefits of the injection are often short-lived. While some people experience longer-lasting relief, it is not uncommon for the pain to return one to two weeks after a cortisone injection. Because of this, they are considered to be a short-term management strategy and are generally not given more than once every three months.

Platelet-Rich Plasma Injections

More recently, platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections have emerged as a potential treatment option for knee arthritis. This treatment involves a physician:

  • Drawing your blood
  • Using a centrifuge machine to separate out a component called platelets
  • Re-injecting these substances back into the affected knee

Platelets contain proteins called growth factors, which play a significant role in tissue healing. Because of this, injecting growth-factor concentrated plasma into the arthritic area may help reduce the pain and soreness associated with osteoarthritis.

The research on this treatment is still mixed, however, and it appears that PRP injections are most beneficial six to 12 months after they are administered in your knee.

Viscosupplementation

Viscosupplementation is another type of injection that may provide some arthritis relief without surgical intervention.

This procedure involves injecting a substance called hyaluronic acid (HA) into the knee joint. HA is a smooth, lubricating substance that is normally found in the synovial fluid that surrounds your joints. By injecting this viscous fluid into an arthritic joint, viscosupplementation aims to reduce the friction and pain associated with moving an arthritic knee.

Unfortunately, the benefits of this treatment are still unclear. At this point, viscosupplementation appears to be most appropriate for individuals who:

  • Cannot take pain medication
  • Are unable to have surgery
  • Have less advanced cases of OA

Total Knee Replacement

When all other treatment options are ineffective at managing your pain, a total knee replacement surgery may be needed.

This procedure, which is performed by an orthopedic surgeon, involves removing the damaged cartilage at the end of the tibia and femur bones. Following this, metal components are secured at the end of the two knee bones, and a plastic spacer is positioned in between to help facilitate smooth movement in the joint.

This procedure is extremely common and is very effective in treating OA. Overall, individuals who undergo a knee replacement have been shown to have decreased pain, improved function, and high levels of long-term satisfaction.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

In certain circumstances, some complementary or alternative interventions may be able to provide you with relief from knee arthritis. While not considered to be primary treatments, these options may still be of benefit to certain individuals.

Glucosamine and Chondroitin

Glucosamine and chondroitin are two supplements that are often combined and taken orally to treat knee arthritis.

These supplements, which are produced naturally in the body, are thought to impede cartilage degeneration by protecting cells called chondrocytes, which give the cartilage its structure. Glucosamine and chondroitin also contain anti-inflammatory agents which may help reduce your pain and swelling.

Unfortunately, the research supporting the benefits of this supplement combo has been mixed at best. There is some evidence suggesting that taking glucosamine and chondroitin may result in medium-term improvements in pain and function in people with knee OA. After 26 weeks of taking it, however, these benefits do not appear to be sustained.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is another complementary treatment that has been intermittently used for OA.

This intervention involves inserting fine-tipped needles into different areas of the body in order to treat arthritis pain. Originally based on traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is thought to reduce symptoms by stimulating the release of pain-relieving endorphins in the body.

Like the other alternative options, however, the research is still out on this treatment. Acupuncture may provide some long-term improvements in the daily function of people with chronic knee arthritis, but it appears to deliver only short-term pain relief.

Ginger

Ginger, a common spice found in many recipes, may also hold some benefit for individuals with OA. This ingredient has anti-inflammatory properties, which may help reduce the pain associated with an arthritis flare-up.

Research has shown that individuals with arthritic knees who take oral ginger supplements have lower pain levels and reduced disability when compared to people who don’t take the substance. In addition, ginger has no negative gastrointestinal side effects, which may make it appealing to people who can’t tolerate NSAID medications.

A Word from Verywell

The symptoms of knee OA can be debilitating and may seriously impact your ability to function on a daily basis. Fortunately, however, there are a wide array of treatment options at your disposal! In order to properly select the most appropriate interventions, it is a good idea to speak to your physician about your condition. Following a thorough evaluation and a conversation about your overall goals, your doctor will be able to guide you towards the treatment options that are right for you.  

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Article Sources
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