What Are the Treatments for Arthritis in the Knee?

Arthritis in any joint can be a painful, aggravating and activity-altering condition. When arthritis affects the weight bearing joints of the body, especially the knee, it can have a potentially serious life changing impact on what one does for work, recreation and just plain everyday living. There are several treatment options available for knee arthritis, and each option corresponds to the severity of the symptoms.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.

Over-The-Counter Remedies

In the early or mild stages of knee arthritis, symptoms may only be evident as a mild ache or soreness that, for the most part is relatively non-restrictive. Most people who display this level of symptoms typically find relief with the use of medications that can be purchased over the counter, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. These medications are typically of a dose that is lower than their prescription strength counterparts, but strong enough to relieve the mild pain and inflammation that can be experienced at this stage of the arthritic condition. Occasionally, creams and ointments can provide temporary relief, such as those containing menthol or capsacian.

Activity Modification

Modifying one’s activity in terms of type and intensity level can go a long way in reducing symptoms of knee arthritis. For example people whose jobs require excessive standing, walking or climbing will benefit from duties that would reduce the amount of prolonged weight bearing that is required on the knees. Occasional job modifications may be necessary to adequately reduce the stresses on the knee joints. Using elevators and escalators instead of stairs can also greatly reduce impact and stresses upon the knees.

Narcotic Pain Relievers

As the arthritic condition continues to progress, pain and inflammation levels also increase and progress. When over-the-counter treatments are no longer effective at treating the symptoms of knee arthritis, the use of stronger, narcotic pain medications may be required. Medications such as codeine, oxycodone and hydrocodone are typically used to treat moderate to severe pain from knee arthritis. Many times, these narcotics are used in conjunction with stronger, prescription strength anti-inflammatory agents to achieve sufficient relief.

Cortisone Injections

When the pain, inflammation and mechanical symptoms, such as popping, cracking and occasional catching of knee arthritis reach a level that more concentrated relief is in order, the use of cortico-steroids, commonly known as cortisone, in injectable form can bring substantial relief for several weeks.

Physical / Aquatic Therapy

Different types of physical therapy modalities can provide relief from the pain and inflammation of knee arthritis, such as hot packs, ice application, assistive range of motion, and instruction for use of crutches or walkers to limit weight bearing for additional relief.

Therapy can be performed on land or in water. Aquatic therapy is rapidly becoming the most popular form of therapy for several reasons: patients can exercise without the negative effects of gravity; the warm temperature and pressure of the surrounding water is helpful in reducing swelling; and aquatic therapy can be very relaxing while still accomplishing treatment goals.


Surgery is typically reserved as the last resort for treatment of knee arthritis. That being said, however, surgery is not merely a salvage treatment option. For less severe arthritis, procedures such as knee arthroscopy, where the joint can be cleaned out of aggravating things such as torn cartilage, loose bodies and inflamed synovial tissue can provide substantial relief.

When all else has failed, or the arthritis is too severe for other treatments to be indicated, knee joint replacement is the treatment of choice. Knee replacement surgery has developed into a popular and successful treatment option for end stage arthritis. By replacing the arthritic joint surfaces with artificial components, the pain of arthritis is all but totally eliminated and more normal mobility is restored. Patients can live, walk, work and even enjoy some sporting activities with knee replacements.

Gel Injections

Another non-surgical treatment option is the use of injectable materials that are designed to reduce friction within the knee, without the negative effects of substances such as cortisone. This gel material can be manufactured from the biologic tissue from rooster combs, or synthetically. The function of this material is to coat the roughened joint surfaces, provide greater lubrication, and reduce pain and inflammation.

The use of these materials through injection is called visco-supplementation. There are several brands of this injectable material and treatments can range from one injection weekly for up to five weeks, to a single injection.