Knee osteoarthritis (OA) can affect your every move: walking, climbing stairs, even sitting or lying down. Surgery can help bring relief, but doctors almost always advise trying other treatment options first. These include:
Medications you take by mouth. Over-the-counter options include acetaminophen (Tylenol) as well as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve). NSAIDs fight inflammation. Stronger NSAIDs are available by prescription.
Creams or ointments you rub onto the skin. Different forms are sold over the counter. You can get stronger versions with a prescription.
Medications injected into the joint. Corticosteroid injections, also called cortisone shots, fight inflammation and can offer fast pain relief that may last up to several months. Injections of hyaluronic acid boost the natural joint fluid that keeps knees moving smoothly. They may take up to a couple of months to have their full effect but can last up to 6 months or more.
Exercise and physical therapy. Exercise strengthens the muscles that support your knee. Physical therapy also helps. A physical therapist can design the program for you and see if you need supportive braces, splints, or canes. If you need to lose weight, diet and exercise can help you shed some pounds and take some of the pressure off your knees.
Weight loss. Every pound you gain puts an extra 3 pounds of pressure on your knees. If you eventually need knee replacement surgery, your chances of success are much greater if you first lose extra weight.
Nutritional supplements. Some people take glucosamine and chondroitin for OA. Studies on how well they work have had mixed results. Another supplement, called SAMe, has been shown to work as well as nonprescription pain relievers and may have fewer side effects. It takes longer to work, though. Before you start taking any supplements, even if they're natural, tell your doctor so they can check for any side effects.
These treatment options may provide enough relief to keep you moving comfortably. If they don't, they become less effective over time, or you can't tolerate them, your doctor may suggest considering surgery. The two types of surgery most often recommended for knee OA are arthroscopic surgery and knee replacement surgery.
In this type of surgery, the surgeon inserts a thin tube with a tiny camera on the end through a small opening in your skin to view the inside of your knee. The surgeon can then remove damaged cartilage -- the smooth covering that protects the bones in the joint. Your knee can be cleaned or flushed to remove loose bone or cartilage pieces that may be causing pain.
Most people can get back to their usual activities a few days later. The recovery usually isn't painful.
Arthroscopic surgery may provide short-term relief from pain and possibly delay more complex surgery.
Knee Replacement Surgery
If you have tried all other osteoarthritis treatment options and still have knee pain, your doctor may suggest knee replacement. It can help reduce your pain and improve your ability to move.
Knee replacement surgery involves removing all or part of the knee joint and replacing the damaged parts with an artificial joint. These are made of metals and plastics. In some cases, the surgery can be done robotically.
It may take months to recover fully, but the relief can last many years or even a lifetime.
It may be time to have knee replacement surgery if you have:
- Severe knee pain that limits your everyday activities
- Moderate or severe knee pain while resting, day or night
- Long-lasting knee inflammation and swelling that doesn’t get better with rest or medications
- A bowing in or out of your leg
- No pain relief from NSAIDs or can't tolerate them