How Knee Pain Is Treated

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Knee pain is an extremely common musculoskeletal problem that frequently causes people to seek medical attention. Whether from osteoarthritis, a sprained ligament or strained muscle, cartilage damage, or tendonitis, many different issues can cause this type of joint discomfort.

In addition, many of these conditions can be accompanied by other symptoms like swelling, stiffness, and instability in your joint. This can cause everyday activities like walking, squatting, or climbing stairs to become quite difficult.

Fortunately, there are numerous different ways to address the symptoms you may be feeling in your knee. These options range from home remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) medications to more invasive procedures or surgeries. In addition, lifestyle modifications like maintaining a healthy body weight can also be extremely beneficial. The sections below detail the most effective options for treating the pain you are experiencing in your knee.

She hit the trail a bit too hard

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Home Remedies and Lifestyle

Immediately after your knee begins to bother you, there are several steps you can take at home to help alleviate the symptoms.

While these treatments may be helpful, it is still important to make your physician aware of any pain you are experiencing. This is especially true if the at-home remedies are not effective or if the pain is getting progressively worse.

RICE Principle

One of the most tried-and-true ways to address your acute knee pain and the swelling and inflammation that often accompany it is to utilize the RICE principle. This acronym, which stands for Rest-Ice-Compression-Elevation, is a common first line of defense and can help reduce your symptoms regardless of their cause.

To properly put the RICE principle into practice:

  • Begin by taking a break from any strenuous activities, especially those that cause more pain in your knee.
  • Ice the affected area at least three times per day for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. While you do this, elevate the leg above your heart so that gravity can help clear any swelling that is present in the joint. You can also prop your leg up any time you are sitting throughout the day.
  • Utilize a compression sleeve or an ACE bandage around your knee to help push the swelling out of the area. Be sure this compression is snug but not overly restrictive or tight, to avoid cutting off circulation in the knee.

Bracing

In limited situations, a knee brace may also help improve the pain you are feeling in your knee and add support to damaged structures in the joint.

Using a Brace After Injury

A knee brace can help improve pain after more severe ligament sprains or tendon strains, when instability in the joint commonly occurs.

Unfortunately, there is minimal evidence supporting the use of braces for other conditions that cause knee pain like osteoarthritis or meniscus degeneration.

To help ensure a brace is appropriate in your situation and that you purchase the correct one, it is best to speak to your doctor first.

Weight Loss

While it won’t immediately reduce the symptoms you are feeling, one of the most effective ways to prevent knee pain from recurring is to maintain a healthy body weight. This is especially true for knee pain that is caused by osteoarthritis, as excess weight can place undue stresses on the damaged areas of the joint.

BMI and Knee Pain

Individuals with a body mass index (BMI) over 25 should strongly consider taking steps to lose weight in an effort to reduce the frequency and intensity of their knee pain.

Several different lifestyle changes—including diet modifications and the introduction of low-impact aerobic exercises (like biking or swimming)—can help facilitate this weight reduction.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

In addition to the home remedies described above, there are also several OTC medications that may be useful in reducing your knee symptoms.

As with any medication, however, it is always a good idea to speak to your doctor prior to starting a new regimen. This is particularly important advice for individuals with other health concerns that could be negatively impacted by taking an additional drug.

Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, Aleve, and aspirin, can be helpful in reducing the knee pain caused by several different conditions. This is because this type of medication helps:

  • Combat inflammation
  • Decrease pain and swelling associated with osteoarthritis, sprains, and cartilage tears

NSAIDs can also be helpful in treating the pain from muscle strains; however, they may interfere with tendon healing and should be used with caution in these circumstances.

This class of medications can have significant side effects, including stomach pain and increased risk of bleeding. Because of this, they should be taken at the lowest possible dose that is still effective.

In addition, NSAIDs should be used for short-term treatment only, as they have not been found to be effective for managing chronic knee pain.

Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen, also known as Tylenol, is another OTC medication that can help manage your knee pain.

This class of medicine has been found to be as effective as NSAIDs in treating the soreness associated with osteoarthritis. Because acetaminophen does not have the same gastrointestinal or bleeding side effects, however, the drug can be a nice option for people who are not able to tolerate NSAIDs.

Acetaminophen Liver Warning

High doses of acetaminophen can have toxic effects on your liver. Because of this, Tylenol should not be taken while consuming alcohol.

Prescriptions

In certain cases, OTC medications are not effective enough in addressing your knee pain, and your doctor may suggest a prescription instead.

Depending on your specific condition and any other health concerns you have, these drugs may provide greater benefit in decreasing your symptoms.

Selective NSAIDs

Selective NSAIDs (such as Celebrex or Mobic) are a class of prescription drugs that work to reduce the pain, swelling, and inflammation in your knee without causing side effects in the stomach. They do this by allowing the production of a stomach-protecting lipid called prostaglandin (which is usually blocked by OTC NSAIDs).

Like their OTC cousins, selective NSAIDs can be used for knee pain caused by:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Cartilage damage
  • Ligament sprains

They are also meant to provide short-term relief, however, and should not be taken to manage chronic knee concerns.

Opioid Analgesics

In rare circumstances, where other medications are not effective or where surgery is not an option, opioid (narcotic) analgesic medications may be necessary to control your knee pain. This class of drugs, which includes medications like hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone, may be beneficial in treating (typically advanced) cases of osteoarthritis.

Over time, however, the body adapts to these drugs and they become less effective in relieving your pain. Because of this, opioids are typically recommended only for short-term pain control.

Opioids and Addiction

Narcotic medications are extremely addictive and must be prescribed with caution.

In addition to being habit-forming, other potential side effects of opioid analgesics include constipation, drowsiness, nausea, confusion, and slowed breathing.

Surgeries and Specialist-Driven Procedures

Once you have been evaluated by your physician, they may suggest one of several interventions to treat your knee pain.

Typically carried out by a surgeon or another specialist, these options run the gamut from conservative to invasive. One or more may be needed to resolve your pain and to correct the underlying cause of your symptoms.

Physical Therapy

One of the most conservative yet effective options for improving your knee pain is physical therapy (PT).

Your therapist can work with you to:

  • Build strength in your knee and hip muscles
  • Improve your overall flexibility
  • Establish an aerobic exercise routine

In turn, this can help effectively treat the pain associated with:

  • Knee osteoarthritis
  • Tendonitis
  • Nontraumatic cartilage tears
  • Sprains

Injections

Corticosteroid (cortisone) injections are sometimes utilized by physicians to relieve the pain from osteoarthritis or degenerative cartilage tears.

Injections Provide Short-Term Relief

While injections can provide short-term pain relief, they are not a long-term solution and are usually not administered more than once every three months.

In addition, because corticosteroids can weaken and potentially tear a tendon, they should not be given directly into these structures to treat a strain or tendonitis.

Hyaluronic acid, a viscous substance that helps lubricate an arthritic joint, is also sometimes used to treat knee osteoarthritis. Called viscosupplementation, this treatment is given in an attempt to reduce the pain and improve the joint’s overall mobility.

Unfortunately, its effectiveness is questionable and the injection is recommended only for people for whom other conservative treatments have failed, who are unable to have surgery, or who have less advanced osteoarthritis in their knee.

Last, platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections have been utilized more recently to treat knee osteoarthritis and chronic patellar tendonitis.

This treatment involves taking plasma, which is heavily concentrated with healing proteins called growth factors, and injecting it into the affected joint in an attempt to stimulate healing. While some early studies have shown improved pain and function following a PRP injection, particularly six to 12 months later, the research is still inconclusive.

Meniscectomy or Meniscal Repair

Knee pain caused by a meniscal tear may need to be treated surgically if less invasive options are not successful. This type of condition is typically surgically addressed by either:

  • Removing the damaged portion of the cartilage (called a partial meniscectomy)
  • Reattaching it to the bone (called a meniscal repair)

While meniscal repairs have better long-term outcomes than meniscectomy surgeries and are less likely to lead to osteoarthritis, only a small portion of tears can be surgically repaired. This is because repairs are typically able to be performed only on tears on the outer third of the meniscus, which has better blood flow than the rest of the structure.

In addition, there is questionable evidence supporting the use of a partial meniscectomy surgery to treat degenerative meniscal tears caused by osteoarthritis. Instead, addressing this type of pain with physical therapy seems to produce superior outcomes over time.

Because of this, a partial meniscectomy is typically reserved for traumatic meniscal tears or for people who get minimal pain relief from PT.

Total Knee Replacement

If other conservative treatments for osteoarthritic knee pain fail to provide relief, a total knee replacement is often needed to correct the problem.

This common surgical technique, which involves replacing the arthritic joint with prosthetic components, has been found to be extremely successful at improving knee pain and increasing your overall function. Typically, the surgery is followed by several months of physical therapy focused on increasing your knee range of motion and improving the strength in your leg muscles.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Less commonly utilized, CAM approaches are not considered to be the first line of defense when treating knee pain. That said, in certain situations, some complementary and supplemental options can have pain-reducing effects on your joint. Be sure to speak with your doctor before trying any alternative or supplemental treatments.

Glucosamine and Chondroitin

Glucosamine and chondroitin are supplements that can be taken orally by people with osteoarthritic knee pain. These substances, which are found naturally in the body, are thought to slow cartilage damage and improve pain levels.

Unfortunately, the research on these supplements is still mixed. They are thought to provide relief from osteoarthritis pain temporarily, but were not found to be effective for longer than 26 weeks.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture involves inserting very fine needles into strategic points throughout the body. While its pain-relieving mechanisms are not completely understood, it is thought to lessen soreness by triggering the release of endorphins and other pain-relieving chemicals from the spinal cord and sections of the brain.

The evidence for this treatment is still lacking; however, it appears to provide short-term pain relief for people with chronic knee osteoarthritis. Unfortunately, this benefit is not typically sustained in the long term.

Ginger

Oral ginger supplements are thought to have anti-inflammatory biological properties that make them potentially useful in treating knee pain. Research has found that taking ginger can lead to statistically significant improvements in pain and function in people with osteoarthritis.

To add to this, because ginger has minimal long-term side effects, the supplement is generally considered safe to take over a longer period of time if your knee condition is chronic.

A Word From Verywell

From at-home remedies to invasive surgeries, there are a wide array of treatment options for your knee pain. Because of this, it is important to speak to your physician about your symptoms. Following a thorough examination, your doctor can help you select the interventions that give you the best chance of finding relief and that allow you to return to the activities you love. 

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Article Sources
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