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Non-Surgical Treatments for Osteoarthritis of the Knee

Man holding knee in pain

Osteoarthritis is a debilitating condition that can affect a number of joints, including the spine, shoulder, hands and hips, but it is most frequently experienced in the knee joint.

Generally believed to be a result of ‘wear and tear’ there is now good evidence to show there is a cascade of biochemical degradation to the surface cartilage. Osteoarthritis is often seen in the joints of older people above the age of 65, but it also affects many younger people. Previous injuries are often the cause for developing the disease, which is incurable, but the pain and discomfort of the condition can be eased in a number of ways.

The last resort is surgery, which is usually only considered once every other option has been explored. A knee replacement has a lifespan of around 15 years, so most surgeons try to avoid them wherever possible, as this could set the patient up for repeat operations in the future.

With an emphasis on preserving and extending current knee function, conservative treatments that avoid surgery are always the best option, and many people find that they are able to function very well without the need for surgery. With that in mind, here are the top 5 non-surgical treatment options for knee osteoarthritis.

Treatment options for knee osteoarthritis

1. Weight loss and exercise

A significant percentage of people with knee osteoarthritis are overweight, which only compounds the problem. The knee is a weight-bearing joint, so it’s very important to ensure that you keep your body weight within carefully prescribed limits to avoid putting additional strain on it. We work with Nutritionists and Lifestyle Medicine specialists, who can help you with dietary and lifestyle changes. Losing weight is one of the most important aspects of encouraging good knee function, so it’s a good place to start.

At the same time, it’s important to maintain your fitness levels. Many people with osteoarthritis of the knee try to avoid movement, as this causes discomfort and pain, but this will inevitably lead to stiffness and a loss of range of movement through the affected joint. Keeping moving is key to maintaining the health of your body’s joints, so don’t turn your back on exercise. However, some forms of exercise are more appropriate for damaged knee joints, so embrace low-impact activities, such as walking, cycling and swimming. We also work with a team of physiotherapists and osteopaths that can help you with exercise plans specifically for osteoarthritis.

2. Pain Relief Medication

Depending on the level of knee pain that you experience, you should be able to source effective pain relief over the counter. For many people, an occasional dose of paracetamol may be all that is required to keep pain levels under control, but for those with more severe pain, there are plenty of options.

Your GP can prescribe a range of medications to limit pain, including NSAIDs, which don’t use steroids. Don’t lose heart if your prescription doesn’t seem to be working – some medications take time to build up in your system, whilst you may find that some treatments work better than others. If you feel that your medication is having little or no effect on your pain levels, return to your GP and ask for a change of pain relief to explore more options.

3. Hot and Cold Packs

Hot and cold therapy can make a big difference to the pain of knee osteoarthritis. Applying heat to an affected joint improves circulation and relaxes tense muscles, which helps to soothe pain. Many sufferers of knee osteoarthritis also swear by regular hot baths containing Epsom Salts, so this is also something worth trying.

Applying ice to an affected joint helps to numb pain by constricting the blood vessels and interrupting nerve impulses that relay pain to the brain. You can purchase dedicated ice packs that wrap around your knee, or simply use a bag of frozen peas – but always make sure to wrap the cold pack in cloth before placing it on the skin. Leave the pack in place for around 20 minutes, repeating as necessary to relieve pain and reduce swelling.

4. Knee Braces and Supports

A well-fitting knee brace can have a dramatic effect on pain levels, by removing some of the pressure and strain on the knee joint. The brace holds the knee firmly in place, providing a high level of support to the structures of the knee and preserving its stability. When it comes to osteoarthritis, an offloading knee brace actually transfers some of the load from the affected side of the joint to the less affected side which reduces pain by minimising bone on bone contact.

Make sure that you use an appropriate knee brace, otherwise it may not be effective. For best results you should seek professional advice for fitting, to ensure that the support works appropriately and provides the best levels of stability for your knee joint. It shouldn’t rub, pinch or chafe, and should be comfortable to wear.

5. Biological Joint Injections

Biological joint injections are among the latest non-surgical treatment options for osteoarthritis patients. Although they are relatively new to the market, they have been providing longer-term pain relief for many patients.

There are a number of different types of biological joint injections such as Platlet Rich Plasma Therapy / Concentrated Plasma Therapy, nSTRIDE,  Lipogems and stem cells. These injections use your body’s own tissue to promote healing and may prolong the need for surgery. Your surgeon will speak to you about which biological joint injection options would be recommended for you.

Mr Joyti Saksena

Mr Joyti Saksena has a keen interest in joint preservation surgery of the hip and knee, and undertakes procedures to try and prevent the need for joint replacement particularly in the younger patient. He performs keyhole (arthroscopic) knee surgery and soft tissue knee reconstruction including ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) and MPFL (Medial Patella-Femoral Ligament) reconstruction. He also specialises in the management of infected joint replacements.

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