Have you recently bent down and felt a twinge in your knee? Or maybe you heard a popping sound during your latest round of squats and thought, “Oh, that’s new.”
Knee pain is a common condition that afflicts millions of us every day. The issue can be caused by a number of things including slips and falls, sports-related injuries, exercising with improper form, and plain old aging.
While many forms of knee pain are transient, discomfort in the knee area can sometimes linger. In fact, 1 in 4 Americans suffer from chronic knee pain. The good news? There are exercises, products and strategies you can use to help you live your best life when faced with knee pain.
Here are some expert-recommended tips for warding off the pain:
Reduce the inflammation
“Pain is often the result of inflammation in an area,” said Dr. Natasha Trentacosta, a pediatric and adult sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute.
When knee pain strikes, she often tells her patients to try taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen. “Follow the instructions on the product and check with your doctor to make sure there are no contra-indications,” she said. Trentacosta also recommends Voltaren gel, a topical NSAID, as it may be less abrasive on the stomach for sensitive patients.
“For acute, debilitating pain, a doctor may administer a corticosteroid injection into the knee joint to help decrease acute inflammation quickly, usually within days,” Trentacosta added. This provides quick relief but is not something that medical professionals like to use repeatedly in the same area within short periods of time, she said.
Don’t rest (at least not too much)
Light exercise can actually help heal knees faster in many cases.
“Movement helps keep blood circulating, can increase flexibility and prevents muscles from stiffening up,” said Dr. Jacob Hascalovici, co-founder and chief medical officer at Clearing and a clinical assistant professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
He added that it’s safe for you to move with your physician’s permission and that, in general, movement won’t typically worsen most knee conditions.
“Try to take a long, slow walk, go swimming, do 30 minutes of yoga or perform some other kind of low-impact workout several times a week,” Hascalovici said.
Get some ice on it
“Cryotherapy or use of ice and cold to decrease swelling and ease pain has been used for many years to relieve ailments in the knee and body,” Trentacosta said.
She suggested applying ice for 15-20 minutes 3-4 times a day in the setting of an acute knee injury. “This can help reduce pain and swelling in the joint, especially in the first 48-72 hours of an injury,” she explained.
If the injury is recent, go beyond icing and follow PRICE, which stands for: protection, rest, ice, compression and elevation.
“Traditionally these methods are used for the first 72 hours after an injury,” said David Fields, owner of Reactivate Therapy, a physical therapy center in Oklahoma. “Protection and rest so you don’t irritate or reinjure. Ice to bring down the temperature. Compression to combat swelling. Elevation to decrease the blood pressure to the affected limb.”
This combination, he explained, works to reduce the natural inflammatory response that your body mounts to an injury.
Pad your knees
A little extra padding can make everyday activities more comfortable. When attempting kneeling yoga postures or stretches that require you to kneel, place a yoga pad under your knee for extra support.
You can also use a knee pad in additional settings. “Place the pad under your knees when kneeling on hard surfaces, like gardening or cleaning or repairs at home,” Fields said. “And if you are moving around a lot, you may want to consider knee pads that stay on your knees.” (Such as these ultra light knee pads.)
Get a pair of supportive shoes
The shoes you wear can make a big difference in how your knees feel.
“Focusing on the base, aka your feet, will likely help align your knees and prevent overextension of ligaments and tendons and conditions like arthritis from becoming a problem,” said Dr. Ebonie Vincent, a foot and ankle surgeon based in California and star of TLC’s “My Feet Are Killing Me.”
A 2021 study found that people who walked in shoes that were supportive experienced a reduction in knee pain. In another study, women who wore high heels experienced additional knee strain, putting them at higher risk of knee osteoarthritis. Look for a good pair of stable, supportive walking shoes like these expert-recommended ones from Vionic.
If your shoes aren’t comfortable, add an insole. Orthotics, like these from Dr. Scholl’s, are a good starting point. “Having a sturdy pair of inserts that support the arch as well can be an additive and even necessary support for some,” Vincent said.
Do some strength training
“Happy knees are dependent on the balance of all the muscles around them, above them and below them,” explained Joy Puleo, a certified pilates teacher and education program manager at Balanced Body.
To keep knees healthy, Puleo stressed the importance of balancing strength between the inner and outer thigh, maintaining strong and healthy quads and hamstrings, and working the deep muscles of the glutes. Puleo recommended the following exercises:
- Inner thigh circles: Put one forearm on the ground and prop yourself onto one side, with your shoulder directly above your elbow. Bend your top leg so the knee points upward and the foot is flat on the ground. Keep your top hip aligned with the bottom one and the bottom leg straight. Lift your bottom leg up to meet your top knee. Lower and lift the bottom leg or make circles with the bottom leg. The inner thigh of the bottom leg, as well as your abs, should be doing most of the work. Do several leg lifts, then lift your bottom leg up and hold, before doing 10 circles in either direction. Repeat on the other side.
- Shoulder bridges with a ball: Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and a ball or towel in between them. Your heels must be directly below your knees. Squeeze the ball and raise your hips from the ground. Don’t arch your back; lift by squeezing your bottom and legs at the back. Pull your navel up your spine as you raise your hips. Do 10 bridges in succession before holding at the top. Then squeeze your ball or towel using your inner thigh in a 10-pulse routine. Repeat three times.
- Clams: Lie flat on your side, bending your legs and placing one on top of the other. Raise your heels from the ground. Keeping your bottom leg stationary and stable, squeeze your upper thigh and gluteal muscles to open up the top leg, just like a clam. Position your knee so it is pointed skyward but without your top hip having to fall back. Your hips should also be stacked when doing this exercise. Do 10-20 reps per set, then repeat on the other side.
Wear a knee brace
“Modern custom knee braces are designed to absorb unequal force and distribute weight more evenly upon the knee,” said Dr. Matthew Crooks, a pain management physician in Scottsdale, Arizona.
When worn during activity, knee braces can reduce stress and pain and can help you to be more active in situations where knee pain has previously affected mobility. (Not sure where to start? This knee brace by Vive Health is a good beginning point.)
Be mindful, however, that braces are not meant to be a long-term solution. “They are a preventative measure against reinjury to allow you to heal,” Fields said.
They should also not be worn all of the time — only when performing tasks that require knee support. “If the problem persists, you need to seek the help of a professional,” Fields added.
See an orthopedic doctor
“Most knee pain is self-limited, which means it will go away without medical intervention, especially in kids and young adults,” said Dr. Robert Blais, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with Texas Orthopedics, Sports & Rehabilitation Associates. Seniors, on the other hand, are more prone to lingering knee pain.
Blais recommended seeing a medical provider for pain that interferes with sleep, limits activity and/or requires daily use of medications to alleviate pain.
“Pain that lasts longer than two weeks should be evaluated,” he said. Pain after injury that does not get better with a few days of rest should also be of concern.
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