Does climbing a single flight of stairs make your knees feel like you've scaled the Empire State Building? What about those twinges throughout the day when you do something as simple as standing up or sitting down? If you are experiencing pain, swelling and stiffening in your knees, especially after normal activity, you may be living with osteoarthritis. This degenerative disease is often referred to as “wear and tear arthritis,” because it is caused by the breakdown and loss of cartilage that naturally cushions the knee.
Self-Care Tips to Ease Osteoarthritis Symptoms
There are many things you can do ease the pain, whether you've been recently injured or you've had osteoarthritis for years. Here are a few ways you can manage symptoms at home:
- Apply hot or cold packs - A heating pad relieves pain and stiffness by increasing the blood flow to your knee. Ice packs keep the swelling down.
- Wear a brace - Wearing a knee brace reduces osteoarthritis pain, and helps prevent injury. It helps you place more weight on the part of the knee that isn't arthritic, or it supports the entire knee. A brace also helps you return to normal daily activities while you are healing from surgery or taking pain medications
- Eat healthy - A balanced diet will ensure you get all of the nutrients you need to help alleviate osteoarthritis symptoms. Low-fat dairy foods, like milk and yogurt, provide vitamin D and calcium that strengthen bones. Foods like salmon, tuna, olive oil and walnut oil that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids can reduce osteoarthritis pain by counteracting inflammation. Your doctor may recommend supplements for nutrients you aren't getting in your food.
- Exercise - Besides being one of the best ways to improve your overall well-being, moderate to vigorous physical activity strengthens your muscles so they can better support and protect joints affected by arthritis. Start slowly and build the intensity of your workout over time.You don't have to run or lift heavy weights--gyms have all kinds of equipment like stationary bikes that are easier on tired knees. If you're unsure how to get started, ask your doctor for suggestions. Whatever type of exercise you enjoy, being more active will help you shed excess weight that may be straining your joints.
Other Treatment Options for Osteoarthritis of the Knee
Medical treatment plans for osteoarthritis of the knee typically involve a combination of options.
- Medications - Over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatories that contain acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen sodium often provide relief. If your pain persists for more than 10 days, ask your doctor about prescription medications that might be more effective.
- Injections - Steroids are powerful anti-inflammatories. Your doctor may recommend injecting hyaluronic acid or corticosteroids into your knees to help them replenish their natural lubricating fluids.
- Surgery - When other treatments are unable to alleviate your pain, there are different surgical options depending on the severity of your osteoarthritis. Your doctor determines how severe your knee arthritis is by performing a minimally-invasive, low-risk procedure called arthroscopy. Cartilage repair and reconstruction can be effective if the damage is limited to a small, relatively isolated area. Knee osteotomy, a procedure that shifts body weight off of the damaged part of a knee, is useful where poor knee alignment has caused arthritis that is worse on one side than it is on the other. Partial or total knee replacement surgeries are considered when patients have moderate to severe knee arthritis and haven't found adequate relief from other options.
Almost all of us will develop some form of osteoarthritis as we age. See your doctor and ask how to help keep your knees feeling their best.
Nicolas Hernandez, DO, is a board-certified family medicine physician at St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.