Which Medicines Treat Knee Pain?

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on December 19, 2022
3 min read

The first thing to try for knee pain is usually RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. What if that's not enough to make you feel better?

When your pain is severe or you can't move your knee, you should call your doctor. If it's not that bad -- twinges or aches from an old injury, for instance -- you have other options.

Some medicines you can get over the counter. Others you'll have to see your doctor for. Whatever you use, make sure you follow the instructions. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions.

Acetaminophen treats mild to moderate pain. It's in over 6,000 products, by itself and with other medicines.If you take too much, it can harm your liver. So check the label on everything you take so you don't accidentally overdose.

Capsaicin creams, gels, or patches lower the amount of a chemical in your body that sends pain messages to your brain. The product may sting or burn, and you have to put it on your skin regularly so it keeps working.

These are called NSAIDs -- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. They include:

  • Aspirin
  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Nuprin)
  • Naproxen (Aleve, Anaprox, Naprosyn)

Your doctor can prescribe stronger doses than you can get in the store as well as delayed-release and extended-release forms of naproxen.

All of these NSAIDs have similar side effects, including a greater chance of a heart attack or stroke. You could get ulcers, bleeding, or holes in your stomach when you take them for too long.

Diclofenac, another prescription NSAID, comes in a gel (Voltaren) and as a liquid (Pennsaid) that you put on your skin.

Your doctor can give you a shot into your knee, after numbing it, to deliver medicine directly to your joint.

Corticosteroids aren't the type of steroid that builds muscle. In the best cases, they can lower inflammation and relieve pain for months. You probably won't get more than two or three steroid shots per year.

It can take about 2 to 3 days before you feel the effect. Most people can return to work or go home right after they get the shot.

Some people get what's called the "steroid flare," a burst of pain in the injection area for up to 48 hours.

Hyaluronic acid is similar to the thick fluid that's supposed to lubricate your joint. Some people who got injections of it into their knee were able to move easier and hurt less for as long as 6 months.

The downside is that neither of these types of shots will help everyone. They can also cause discolored skin where you got the shot, infection, and weakened tendons, which connect muscles to bones.

Physical therapy can help strengthen the muscles around your knees. Occupational therapy shows you how to do everyday movements in a way that's safer for your knee.

For some people, complementary medicine, like acupuncture or glucosamine supplements, may help.