What You Can Do About Stiff Achy Knees (at Any Age)

How to alleviate pain in your knees
Woman icing and elevating her hurting knee

The most common cause of knee pain can hit you in your 30s as easily as it can in your 60s and 70s. Orthopaedic surgeon Robert Nickodem Jr., MD says osteoarthritis, or “wear-and-tear arthritis,” is the most common cause of knee pain – and the most common form of arthritis.

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Osteoarthritis includes more than 100 different types of arthritis or joint inflammation and rates of it have been steadily rising year after year.  

“Osteoarthritis is like a rusty hinge,” says Dr. Nickodem. “The knee still works, but it creaks.”

Fortunately, osteoarthritis is treatable. You may never be completely pain-free, but you can manage the condition and keep your symptoms under control.

To help alleviate the “creaking” and soothe your knee discomfort, Dr. Nickodem recommends:

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  • Anti-inflammatory medications. Try aspirin or ibuprofen. Acetaminophen is a good pain reliever, but does not reduce inflammation.
  • RICE therapy. Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation can help reduce swelling and pain.
  • Physical therapy. Exercise that strengthens your quads and hamstrings may help relieve the pressure on your knees.
  • Knee braces. They can take pressure off the arthritic area.
  • Cortisone injections. An occasional injection of this steroid may lessen the swelling and achy pain.
  • Lubricant injections. Viscosupplementation, or lubricant injections, can help the knee move more smoothly. “It can help three out of four people if the arthritis isn’t too evere,” Dr. Nickodem says.

What is ‘wear and tear’ arthritis?

How can you tell if you have osteoarthritis?

“If you have pain inside your knee, under your kneecap, especially when kneeling, squatting or going up and down steps, it’s usually wear-and-tear arthritis,” says Dr. Nickodem.

Cartilage, the cushioning between bones, deteriorates throughout life. It can erode more quickly in some people due to injury or genetics. As cartilage thins, your bones begin to rub together, causing pain, swelling and stiffness.

Sometimes the level of pain does not always correlate to the severity of the condition.

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When to call your doctor

If your pain and swelling are getting worse and you can no longer put weight on your knee, see your doctor. A simple X-ray can show if there is osteoarthritis and, if needed, an MRI scan can check for meniscal tears or loose chips of cartilage.

Arthroscopic surgery can sometimes remove loose cartilage. Partial or total knee replacements are other surgical options, especially for those who can no longer stay as active as they’d like. Sometimes computer assistance is used for some complicated knee replacements.

“Surgery is a last resort, though,” says Dr. Nickodem. “It’s something to consider when nonoperative treatments aren’t helping.”

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