Knee arthritis: A common malady

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a condition that causes the cartilage between the bones to wear down. Cartilage cushions your bones and helps you move your joints smoothly. Without enough cartilage, your bones rub together, which can cause pain, stiffness, and limited motion. Osteoarthritis of the knee is the most common form of knee arthritis, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). Treatment for OA of the knee can include both medical treatments and lifestyle changes.

Arthritis is a progressive disease, meaning that it gradually worsens over time. Early symptoms of knee OA might include stiffness in the joints when you wake up in the morning, or a dull ache after you’ve walked a lot or exercised. Tenderness, swelling, and warmth in the joints are also common symptoms of knee arthritis. Some people feel a weakness in the knee joint, or feel and hear cracking or clicking in the knee. At first, you may only experience symptoms after physical activity. But as OA advances, you might also feel pain while at rest.

Your doctor will rely heavily on your story to make an accurate diagnosis of knee OA. Tell your healthcare provider about your symptoms, including when you feel them and for how long. Your doctor will look for swelling in the joints and ask you to flex and extend your knees to see if you have limited range of motion. X-rays can help reveal the telltale worn-down cartilage of OA by showing a loss of space between the joints.

Many people find that osteoarthritis pain responds well to over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and acetaminophen.

If you have moderate to severe OA of the knee, however, OTC medications might not be effective enough. Your doctor can prescribe more powerful drugs to reduce your inflammation and provide more lasting pain relief. If oral medications don’t work, injectable corticosteroids can be another solution.

These medicines are delivered directly to the knee joint and help relieve swelling. Some of these injections are given one time only, while others can be given three to four times a year.

Combining some home remedies and lifestyle changes with your pain medication may help your aching knees feel better. Be sure to talk with your doctor before trying any sort of home treatment. They can help you tailor your plan to your specific needs.

If you’re having an OA flare-up, the first thing to do is rest. Even though movement and exercise helps maintain flexibility, you need to let your inflamed joints calm down a bit when they’re hurting. Other lifestyle changes that can relieve the pain of knee arthritis include:

  • applying heat or cold to your knees
  • losing weight if needed, as excess weight puts more pressure on your knees
  • installing grab bars or other adaptive devices around the home
  • wearing knee braces to help support the joint

Knee arthritis can cause significant pain and weakness as the condition progresses. Weak joints require extra support as you carry out your daily routine. Braces and splints are designed to support your knees both while at rest and during activity. Some types of braces stabilize your knees without limiting your range of motion, while others stop you from moving in ways that may cause pain. Be sure to only wear a brace your doctor has prescribed. Wearing a device that isn’t right for you could make your condition worse.

It’s true that you should rest your joints during an active flare-up, but exercise is actually one of the best ways to combat arthritis symptoms. Joint stiffness is most common after a period of inactivity. When you’re inactive for long periods of time, your knees can lock up, reducing your full range of motion. Low-impact exercise like walking or swimming keeps your joints moving smoothly and maintains flexibility, which is important when you’re faced with the potential of limited mobility. Your doctor or physical therapist may also give you flexing and extending knee exercises specifically designed for arthritis patients.

Following a healthy, low-fat diet helps you manage your weight—an important factor for anyone with arthritis—and gives you all the vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy. Focus on lean meats, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, and plenty of fresh produce, while limiting sodium and fats. People with knee OA may also want to boost the omega-3 and flavonoid content of their diet with foods such as:

  • red apples
  • berries
  • red onion
  • salmon
  • walnuts
  • flaxseed products
  • passion fruit

Research shows that these nutrients can reduce pain, stiffness, and the breakdown of cartilage associated with OA.

Unfortunately, some people with OA of the knee may not respond well to medications, diet, or lifestyle measures. For these patients, surgery is a last-resort option to manage the pain and mobility issues of OA. Surgical solutions for knee arthritis include:

  • arthroscopy: a minimally-invasive procedure that fixes torn cartilage and removes scar tissue and other debris
  • osteotomy: realigns the knee joint to improve mobility
  • cartilage grafting: replaces lost cartilage with soft tissue harvested from your body
  • total knee replacement: replaces the damaged bones and tissues with an artificial knee joint

Arthritis has no cure, and must be managed carefully in order to slow the progression of the disease. If you think you might have OA of the knee, don’t delay. Consult your doctor as soon as possible to put together a treatment plan. Early treatment can go a long way toward keeping you healthy and active.