The best way of managing knee pain depends on the cause. If you’ve had trauma or your knee is very sore and swollen, it’s important to seek professional advice to ensure you get the right treatment.
But if you experience intermittent or chronic knee pain, here’s what you can do:
1. Keep strong and active: Strengthening the muscles around your knee will noticeably reduce pain and stiffness. If your knees are quite weak, a good way to build strength is to walk laps in a swimming pool. As you get stronger, consider using an exercise bike or cross trainer. It’s normal to get a few additional aches and pains when you begin exercising. This will settle as you build strength.
If your knee pain is caused by osteoarthritis, you’ll probably get the most benefit from a supervised exercise programme to ensure you’re doing exercises tailored to your needs. Some exercises you might be given to build strength include step ups (stepping onto a step or box and driving your weight up through the elevated leg) and chair squats (squatting backwards until your buttocks touches the chair then immediately rising back into a standing position). It’s important to keep up the exercises in the long-term so that you maintain the benefits.
2. Watch your weight: Being overweight or obese can put extra strain on the knees. Losing weight will help to reduce this pressure and also reduce inflammation.
Any amount of weight loss may improve knee osteoarthritis symptoms. But losing at least 10% of your body weight is recommended – and the more body weight you lose, the more benefits you’ll see.
At the moment, the benefits of weight loss on knee health has only been investigated in people with osteoarthritis.
3. Modify your activities: Some people find pacing their activities (such as doing certain tasks when your knee pain isn’t as bad, or spacing out activities that you know may cause pain), using walking aids or wearing shoes with shock-absorbing soles (such as good trainers) to be useful. But these changes may only make a small difference in managing knee pain.
If you find your knee pain is made worse by your work, you may also want to make some changes to the way you normally do things to help reduce pain. For example, if you sit a lot at work try to get up and move around more often. But if you spend lots of time on your feet, make time to sit down every so often to take the pressure off your joints.
Most people can successfully manage their knee pain through exercise and other self-management approaches (such as weight loss or stretching), so surgery is not usually needed. But if your knee pain is due to a problem such as a ruptured ligament or advanced osteoarthritis, knee surgery may be recommended.
For people with advanced osteoarthritis, operations such as total knee replacement can lead to big improvements in pain, ability to carry out daily activities and overall wellbeing.
GPs may recommend painkillers in some circumstances – for example if your knee pain is stopping you exercising. However, some of these drugs can have significant side effects with long-term use. For instance, ibuprofen may lead to stomach ulcers.
If you’re hoping to prevent knee pain in the future, the best strategies include staying physically active and maintaining a healthy weight. Keeping the thigh muscles strong will also help support the knees. And, many of these knee-strengthening exercises can be done at home without any equipment – such as the straight-leg raise (sitting in a chair with your back straight and lifting your leg straight up before lowering).