In a healthy knee joint, cartilage between your thigh and shin bones acts as a ‘shock absorber’ to help your knee move smoothly. Knee osteoarthritis occurs when this cartilage and other structures become damaged, causing pain, stiffness, and swelling in your knee.
Symptoms of knee osteoarthritis
Symptoms of osteoarthritis in the knee often come on gradually and can include:
Pain in your knee joint that worsens after activity or at the end of the day and eases when resting
Pain that extends up or down your leg
Stiffness in your knee joint, usually in the morning or after rest, that eases within 30 minutes or after walking
Swelling of your knee joint
Muscle weakness in your leg
Grinding sound or sensation when your knee moves
Feeling like your knee ‘locks up’ or gives way during activity
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, or they concern you, it is important to speak with your doctor. To diagnose knee osteoarthritis, your doctor will review your signs, symptoms, and risk factors and examine your knee.
Who is at risk of developing osteoarthritis in the knee?
Factors that can increase your risk of developing knee osteoarthritis include:
Age over 45 years
Being a woman
Family history of knee osteoarthritis (genetics)
Being overweight or obese
Previous injury or damage to your knee joint
Heavy physical or repetitive activity involving your knee joint
Management options for knee osteoarthritis
It is important to work with your doctor and other healthcare professionals to create a management plan that is best for you. Learning more about the different ways to help relieve your knee osteoarthritis pain can help reduce its effect on your day-to-day life. Some management options include:
Weight management is key for reducing the risk of knee osteoarthritis, as being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing knee osteoarthritis and can speed up how quickly it progresses. Even a small amount of weight loss — about 5% of your body weight — can improve the pain and stiffness in your knee. Speak with your doctor about the most appropriate strategies to lose weight.
Exercise is vital for managing knee osteoarthritis. A combination of walking, muscle strength training targeting your legs, balance training, range of motion exercises, and general fitness training is recommended to help reduce pain and improve function in your knee. Water-based (aquatic) exercises may be beneficial to ease the pressure on your joints. Your doctor or physiotherapist can advise you on appropriate exercises to help manage your symptoms.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may be suitable for some people to help relieve OA pain. Other medications that may provide some benefit for relieving the pain of knee osteoarthritis include oral paracetamol. Speak with your doctor about the right medications for your condition.
Other nonsurgical options
Other therapies that can help you manage your knee osteoarthritis include:
Cane or walking aid to improve balance and mobility
Knee braces or taping to support the knee joint
Heat packs to relieve pain
Mind and body activities such as psychological therapies (e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy), mindfulness practices, and pain coaching
Some people may still experience pain and limited knee function, even after treatment with nonsurgical options. Surgery to replace the whole knee (called a total joint replacement) can help relieve pain and improve function, but it is a major surgery and requires months of rehabilitation.
Speak with your doctor if you have any questions about managing your knee osteoarthritis.
Prevention of osteoarthritis in the knee
Some risk factors for knee osteoarthritis, such as your age, sex, and genetics, are unavoidable. However, there are a number of lifestyle factors that you can target to help improve your knee health, including maintaining a healthy weight and getting regular exercise.
This article is for general information only and not intended as a substitute for medical advice. All information presented on these web pages is not meant to diagnose or prescribe. In all health related matters, always consult your healthcare professional.