DEAR DOCTOR K:
I have osteoarthritis of the knee. Are there ways to relieve my knee pain without drugs or surgery?
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease of the joints. If you were to take an X-ray of every bone in the bodies of people over 50, probably most of us would have some degree of osteoarthritis in some joints.
However, it wouldn’t necessarily hurt. Osteoarthritis surely can cause symptoms. I know; my right hip was badly damaged by osteoarthritis and caused me a lot of pain. Finally, I needed a hip replacement. I’ve been pain-free ever since.
But surgery is a last resort, of course, and you asked about non-surgical options. The standard treatment for osteoarthritis usually consists of anti-inflammatory and pain medications, along with weight loss and physical therapy. Eventually, if the arthritis progresses, you may need surgery.
But if you’re still in the early stages of osteoarthritis, a variety of remedies may offer some pain relief without drugs or surgery:
- Weight loss. The more weight you carry, the more likely you are to have knee pain. Weight loss significantly reduces the load on your knees and slows the progression of knee osteoarthritis. If you’re overweight, make weight loss a priority. I was only a little overweight, but losing just seven pounds made a world of difference to my hip.
- Physical therapy exercises. Strengthening the muscles around your knee can help lessen your pain. A physical therapist can teach you exercises to strengthen and stretch your knee, support the joint and reduce stress on it. (I’ve included an illustration showing two knee-strengthening exercises below.)
- Tai chi. This exercise regimen consists of a series of postures that are performed in a set, flowing sequence. Tai chi improves muscle strength and coordination, which leads to better joint stability. In addition, tai chi promotes mental calmness, which may help to break the cycle of arthritis pain. Millions of people in Asia practice it every day, many because it helps relieve pain from their osteoarthritis.
- Glucosamine and chondroitin. A few years back, these supplements were all the rage to relieve arthritis pain. Time and research, however, have produced minimal or mixed findings. I used them for my hip, but I was never convinced they helped. Some of my patients, however, have obtained relief with them. My guess is that some people really do get relief, whereas others do not.
- Acupuncture. This traditional Chinese practice involves the insertion of extremely fine needles into the skin at specific points. Over the past 40 years, studies have shown that acupuncture clearly does relieve pain in many people.
- Assistive devices can help reduce the stress on your joints. A cane is one example. And shock-absorbing insoles, made of a gel-like material, may help cushion the joints to reduce knee symptoms.
Several of these remedies worked for me for many years, and I’ll bet some will work for you as well.
Straight-leg raise: To protect your knees, do this exercise to strengthen your quadriceps, the large muscle in the front of your thigh. Lie on your back and tighten the thigh muscles of one leg with your knee fully straightened. Lift your leg several inches and hold for 10 seconds. Lower slowly. Repeat until your thigh feels fatigued, then switch to the other leg.
Wall sit: This exercise also strengthens the quadriceps. While standing with your back against the wall, bend your knees, lowering yourself into a sitting position. Do not lock your knees. Hold this position for 20 seconds. Repeat.