You probably don’t think much about your knees — unless they start to hurt. And, thanks to osteoarthritis, there’s a good chance that could happen as you get older. Osteoarthritis is the common wear-and-tear type of arthritis that occurs when the knee’s protective cartilage wears away and causes pain, stiffness and loss of motion.
“Arthritis affects over 50 million adults and is the leading cause of disability,” says Lee M. Schmidt, M.D., chief of orthopedics and director of the Joint Center at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
The good news: Taking care of your body’s largest joints can help you avoid or reduce pain and prevent or put off knee replacement surgery. Here’s how:
Lose just a little weight
“For every pound you lose, it takes 4 pounds of force off your knee,” Dr. Schmidt says. Start with a small, attainable goal. “Losing any weight is a big deal.” In fact, when a group of women lost an average of 15 pounds, they cut their knee pain in half, according to a study presented at a past American College of Rheumatology meeting.
Working out may be the last thing you want to do on aching knees, but research shows staying active helps. “Rather than jogging, go for low-impact activities and those that improve flexibility like cycling, the elliptical machine, swimming, yoga and Pilates,” Dr. Schmidt says.
Strengthen muscles that support knees
The most important: quadriceps, or thigh muscle. “When muscles become weak, the mechanics of the knee are disrupted,” Dr. Schmidt says. “People may favor the leg or strain the joint to compensate.” Multiple studies show a benefit to strengthening the quadriceps, so talk to your doctor about which exercises they recommend or see a physical therapist or certified trainer. Just avoid any exercise that involves deep knee bends, squats or lunges.
Eat an anti-arthritis diet
There’s no magic bullet; simply opt for more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon. “There’s a lot of support for a Mediterranean-style diet,” Dr. Schmidt says. “It’s thought to reduce inflammation which contributes to pain.”
Preliminary research also suggests specific foods might help, including cruciferous veggies like broccoli, garlic, tart cherry juice, turmeric and vitamin C-rich produce.
Choose supportive shoes
Save the flip-flops for the beach and high heels for special occasions. “Excessive wear of heels can shorten the Achilles (tendon), which can put more strain on the knee,” Dr. Schmidt says. But also make sure your go-to comfy sneakers provide good arch support.
Studies have suggested that patients receiving acupuncture had less pain compared to no treatment, but the results weren’t statistically significant. Although more research needs to be done, this treatment may be worth a try, Dr. Schmidt says.
Consider topical and oral medications
You’ve got options: Anti-inflammatory creams and numbing patches, plus over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol, Aleve or Advil. “Different people respond well to some treatments and for others, they don’t help,” Dr. Schmidt says, adding that the goal is to relieve discomfort in the short-term, allowing you to exercise, build strength and lose weight — all of which help in the long-term. Prescription anti-inflammatory medications can provide greater relief, but as with all medications, check first with your primary care physician to avoid potential drug interactions.
Talk to your doctor about injections
If symptoms progress, injections of certain medications can likewise lessen or alleviate symptoms entirely. “Injections don’t cure arthritis, but while the knee is feeling better, this is your chance to build up strength that can prevent a reoccurrence of pain,” Dr. Schmidt says.
Cortisone injections reduce inflammation and thus, pain. Another option: hyaluronic acid, which occurs naturally in joints as a lubricant and shock absorber. “One theory is that it stimulates the healing of damaged cartilage,” he says. “Another is that it tricks the body; it sends the brain a message that this is a normal healthy joint, so the brain doesn’t send out signals that cause inflammation and pain.”
Patients could get as much as six to nine months or more of relief from one injection, and can have injections every six months as long as they continue to help, Dr. Schmidt says.
Injections involving stem cells and platelet-rich plasma are two newer options, however. Stem cells can be obtained from bone marrow concentrate and are the body’s most powerful regenerative cells. While there are many websites and ads touting the use of stem cells for curing arthritis, Dr. Schmidt warns that stem cells are still considered experimental and are not covered by insurance plans.
So, if you’ve tried every other treatment and are still feeling pain and stiffness that affect your daily activities, it may actually be best to consider surgery, he says. “The other concern is if people develop instability, they may fall and break a hip or something else; then it’s too late.”
This webpage is for informational purposes only and not intended as medical advice or a substitute for a consultation with a professional healthcare provider.