Osteoarthritis (OA) affects 30 million people in the United States and is the most common form of arthritis. Though it can affect anyone, people who overwork their joints and have experienced previous joint injury are at an increased risk. The pain and inflammation can interfere with your day-to-day activities and bring even the most seasoned athlete to a screeching halt in their activity.

Our knees are usually the first joints to show their age through regular wear and tear, but add to that years of high-impact exercise like running and skiing, and you’re on the fast track to having to sacrifice the activities you love.

What is osteoarthritis?

OA results in the breakdown of the joint’s cartilage. Cartilage acts as a cushion on the ends of the joints and helps them to move more easily. When the cartilage breaks down, you’re left with bone rubbing against bone when you move the joint, which can lead to damage to the joint itself. The result is pain, stiffness, and interference with joint movement that is characteristic of OA.

Risk factors

Though the cartilage in the joints breaks down on its own from wear and tear over the years, there are certain risk factors that increase a person’s chances of ending up with OA. Risk factors for OA of the knee include:

  • being over the age of 40
  • being overweight
  • previous injury to a joint
  • being a woman
  • hereditary factors
  • other conditions, such as gout and rheumatoid arthritis

Common signs and symptoms

Osteoarthritis commonly affects the weight-bearing joints, with the knee often being the first joint to trouble athletes and people who engage in high-impact exercise.

The most common signs and symptoms of OA include:

  • joint pain after overuse or inactivity
  • joint stiffness that gets better when you start to move again after a period of inactivity
  • morning joint stiffness lasting for a short period of time

The pain and stiffness from OA of the knee can lead to inactivity that causes the muscles in the leg to deteriorate, leading to a vicious circle of even more pain and inactivity. It can also cause a person to favor the other leg to offset their discomfort, which can lead to issues with the other knee and elsewhere throughout the body.

Managing osteoarthritis knee pain

There are several ways to treat and manage OA knee pain, though which will work best depends on the severity of the damage to the knee joint. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) recommends a combination of the following to manage OA:

Exercise

Exercise helps improve muscle strength, improves blood circulation, and reduces pain. It also helps keep the remaining cartilage you have healthy by improving circulation to the cartilage. Losing excess weight reduces stress on the joints. According to one study, each pound lost results in the equivalent of 4 pounds of stress off the knee.

Heat and cold therapy

Heat can be applied using warm towels or hot water bottles to improve circulation and to soothe pain. Applying cold using ice packs or a frozen bag of vegetables can help reduce inflammation.

Timing your rest

Avoiding long periods of rest will keep joints from stiffening. Scheduled rest is necessary to avoid overworking the damaged joint.

Therapy

Physical therapy is performed by professionals who work with you to improve joint function. Occupational therapy teaches you ways to lessen your pain by protecting the joints, and also how to perform your activities in a way that minimizes discomfort.

Anti-inflammatory medications

Over-the-counter and prescription anti-inflammatory medication can offer temporary relief from pain and inflammation to help you stay active.

Using a combination of these treatments can help keep your OA knee pain under control so that you can continue with your daily activities as well as the exercise and physical activities that you enjoy. Speak to your doctor or a sports medicine expert to determine the best course of treatment for your individual needs.