If you have been struggling with how to relieve OA knee pain, you might feel uncertain about what to do.
OA is a progressive, chronic condition, sometimes called “wear and tear,” that affects the cartilage between the joints. Over time, that cartilage, which normally serves as a “shock absorber,” can become stiff and break down.
As OA worsens, the cartilage may actually wear away altogether, leading to more pain as the joint increasingly becomes bone-on-bone. It may be especially pronounced in the knees or hips. OA is commonly diagnosed in older adults, but also may be found in younger people who have been very physically active or experienced knee injuries earlier in life.
The symptoms of OA may develop gradually and typically include:
- Pain, aching and soreness in the joints, especially after movement
- Stiffness or pain after rest or inactivity
- Feelings of weakness or “giving way” in the joint
Although OA is not curable, there is good news: OA knee pain does not have to rule your life. There are plenty of actions to take that may positively affect your overall health, even if you are among the 27 million Americans living with OA today.
Here are some suggested “Do’s and Don’t’s” for you to consider.
DO: Visit the doctor if you have joint pain
DON’T: Keep suffering silently
According to Marje Albohm, Past-President of the National Athletic Trainers Association and Director of Peer to Peer Education and Fellowships at Össur, which makes some of the world’s leading orthopaedic braces, persistent discomfort may require a doctor’s attention.
“Pain can happen when you’re moving your knee up and down, getting out of a chair or walking. It also might occur when you’re sleeping or sitting, not just when you’re being active. And it can be non-specific, so more of a general ache rather than in just one specific location,” she says.
If you are considering visiting a doctor to determine whether you might have OA, Albohm’s recommendation is to “Research the doctor first. Studies show that doctors who treat more OA or do more surgeries have better outcomes. If you live in a small town, you might even want to consider traveling a moderate distance to visit doctors at an established medical center.”
DO: Document your symptoms
DON’T: Disregard extended symptoms or signs of acute inflammation
Prior to your doctor’s visit, Albohm recommends documenting your symptoms, so you can better communicate exactly what you are experiencing.
She suggests asking yourself the following questions:
- How many days have I had these symptoms?
- Are these symptoms consistent or have they changed?
- Am I modifying my daily activities because I’m feeling pain or discomfort in my knees?
She also says “Sometimes when we ask, ‘Should I go to a doctor?’ it might actually mean ‘Do I want to spend the copay?’ But if someone is having an extended period [of] symptoms, they should go.”
When in doubt, Albohm says any time you experience painful symptoms that last longer than 8-10 days, consider calling your doctor.
Pay Attention to Possible Signs of Acute Inflammation
Albohm also recommends visiting the doctor whenever persistent swelling or other key symptoms, such as heat and redness, occur. That’s because these may be indicators of acute inflammation.
“A person can typically treat swelling with ice and elevation, and modify activity if they feel pain,” Albohm says. “But if swelling persists, or you feel warmth or see redness in the affected area, that could be a sign of acute – rather than chronic – inflammation. That really requires a doctor’s attention.”
DO: Be nutrition-minded
DON’T: Ignore unhealthy eating habits
Excessive body weight can put a strain on joints, especially the knees. Being overweight is a risk factor for developing OA. And, as a matter of fact, overweight and obese people with OA are at a higher risk for total knee arthroplasty (TKA), or total knee replacement.
Managing your weight by adjusting your diet can help relieve pressure on the knees. Although there is no such thing as a “superfood” to cure OA, experts suggest that people with OA meet recommended amounts of Vitamin K, which is found in leafy greens, such as kale, mustard greens, and spinach. This is because Vitamin K has been shown to play a role in bone or cartilage mineralization.
Making sound dietary decisions, such as paying attention to the amount of calories or carbohydrates you consume, eating more vegetables and fish, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding too many sweets and fried foods may positively impact your weight as well as your experience with OA knee pain.
DO: Practice healthy behaviors
DON’T: Smoke or consume excessive quantities of alcohol
Probably everyone can recall seeing an anti-smoking commercial on TV or health warnings on alcohol bottles, but did you know that these habits can also impact your OA symptoms?
A 2007 study performed at the Mayo Clinic followed 159 men with knee OA for 30 months. Researchers found that smokers experienced severe pain and were more than twice as likely to have significant cartilage loss as nonsmokers. The researchers theorized that toxins from smoking could have contributed to cartilage loss, or that high carbon monoxide levels in smokers’ blood could be slowing down cartilage repair.
Experts also discourage excess drinking of alcohol if you have OA. Drinking beer, especially, has been shown to contribute to flare-ups and increase joint pain.
Finally, if you are taking any medication for your OA symptoms, whether prescribed or over-the-counter, you may want to avoid drinking alcohol. It may interact with the drug, impacting its effectiveness.
DO: Try to work out regularly
DON’T: Slack off or avoid physical activity
When it comes to exercise, Albohm says people really need to resist the temptation to stay off of their feet when trying to figure out how to relieve OA knee pain.
She explains: “When there’s pain or discomfort, nobody wants to get up and exercise. But that sets off a vicious cycle: you gain weight, then you become more sedentary, which leads to more pain in the joints, and less activity, and so on.”
So, while it may seem appealing to “take a load off,” the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) reports that low to moderately intense exercise has actually been shown to be beneficial for people with OA. Researchers at the Arthritis Foundation have also confirmed that exercise can help reduce pain and improve mobility in people who have OA.
AOSSM recommends that people with OA exercise regularly, building up to sessions that last at least 30-45 minutes, three to five times each week. They also recommend setting goals for physical activity, including:
- Reducing pain and inflammation
- Improving flexibility and range of motion
- Enhancing muscular strength
- Improving balance and coordination
- Enhancing cardiovascular endurance
- Losing excess weight
What types of exercises are suitable for people with OA knee pain?
AOSSM says each physical activity session for people with OA should ideally include:
- A Warm-Up
- Gentle Moves for Stretching, Range-of-Motion and Flexibility
- Low-impact Aerobic exercise, to sustain an elevated heart rate for a period of time
- Anaerobic exercises, such as muscle strengthening
Examples of low-impact aerobic exercises include walking, whether outdoors or an elliptical machine, or riding a stationary bike. Swimming is another possible and often-enjoyable option.Researchers say swimming or other water-based exercises may even be easier than land-based exercises for people with OA. That is because the body’s buoyancy in the water limits the weight that the knees have to support.
Each session should conclude with Anaerobic strengthening exercises. AOSSM recommends strength training movement with light to moderate resistance, such as leg raises, step lunges, arm circles and abdominal crunches. They advise against using heavy weights, which can cause even more wear and tear on joints that are already damaged from OA.
Experts note that it is important for OA patients to participate in exercises that are fun and engaging in order to keep at it over the longer term. They also warn against participating in high-impact exercises like running or step aerobics, because these may be harmful to the joints in the long term.
This video provides an overview of eight possible anaerobic exercises that may be suitable for people who are seeking how to relieve OA knee pain. A playlist of videos that demonstrates each exercise in detail so you can do them at home is available here.
Participating in an exercise program can help with your OA knee pain symptoms and enhance your overall health, but never push through pain when exercising. After working out, you might feel some muscle soreness, but talk to your doctor if it doesn’t go away. You can also ask your doctor or physical therapist if you need to modify any painful moves.
DO: Consider an off-loading knee brace
DON’T: Be too proud to ask your doctor for help
One newer solution that is helping many people cope with their mild to moderate OA knee pain is a knee brace that applies corrective forces to the affected joint where the arthritis is at its worst. One leading option is the Unloader One, which has been specifically designed for knee OA.
“There used to be criticism that using a brace created muscle atrophy. Studies show that is not the case,” Albohm says. “People using the brace maintain muscle strength because they exercise more. The Unloader One, in particular, can allow you to exercise without pain and discomfort, and it is lightweight and breathable for everyday physical activities.”
Today, researchers report that Unloader One is a cost-effective treatment for people with knee OA and has been clinically proven to provide pain relief and functional improvements in these patients.
Bracing is still a relatively new treatment option for OA, so your doctor may not automatically suggest it. You may need to take the initiative and ask directly. As Albohm notes, “Doctors are themselves interested in learning more about bracing as an alternative to medication.”
So be ready to be the one to start the conversation. Ask your doctor whether an off-loading knee brace such as Unloader One could be right for you.
Ultimately, a diagnosis of OA does not mean you have to suffer, become sedentary and be relegated to a life on the sofa. Instead, you can take positive steps to remain healthy, active and ready for your next adventure.