Have you ever noticed that in every scary movie, tragedy is preceded by the slow squeak of a worn door’s tired hinges? Our knees may not audibly squeak as they wear, but the pain and stiffness are telltale signs that our joints—the hinges of our legs—could use heroic intervention before disaster strikes.
Door hinges squeak and squawk when the metal parts rub together without grease or lubrication. Our joints have a natural lubrication, discs of tissue called cartilage, that work better than any canister of WD-40; our cartilage helps our body to move, bend, stretch, and rotate. Over time our cartilage deteriorates, causing bones to painfully rub against each other and wear down. Arthritis or osteoarthritis causes this cartilage to wear even quicker.
If you experience knee pain or stiffness when you climb stairs, ride a bike, get in or out of your car, or just go about your everyday chores you may want to talk to your primary care physician or an orthopedic specialist about finding a happy ending for your squeaky knees.
When you first meet with an orthopedic specialist, they won’t roll you into the operating room right away. First, your doctor will want to understand what is causing the pain. They may ask you questions about your workouts, lifestyle, and when the pain is at its worst. They may also use X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans to get a more detailed understanding of your knee joint and the connecting tissues and bones. The more your doctors know, the better they can help you. And in some cases, the underlying cause of your knee pain could surprise you.
Sometimes the villain is hiding in the same place as our favorite cookies and potato chips—our waistline. Carrying extra weight can be extra hard on your knee joints, so don’t be alarmed if your doctor recommends shedding a few pounds before getting out the prescription pad. You don’t need to fit into your letterman jacket, just give your knees a little less to carry.
Once the cause of your knee pain has been determined, your orthopedic specialist will work with you to create a plan of attack, starting with the most conservative approaches and scaling up as needed.
Physical Therapy to Relieve Stress on Your Knees
If certain activities are causing more wear than normal on your knee joints, your orthopedic specialist may advise you to take it easy for awhile or consult a physical therapist to strengthen your muscles and give your knee some backup. Your physical therapist will work specifically on conditioning your thigh muscles. Your knee team can also walk you through some self-care tips, including:
- Rest and relaxation
- Using ice and heat for soreness
- Wraps and compression to assist with circulation and stability
Short-Term Knee Pain Management Solution
When managing knee pain, you don’t want more when less will get the job done. You may be able to manage your pain with simple over-the-counter medicines, taken as needed. Medications such as ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol), and Naproxen Sodium (Aleve) can decrease the swelling and stiffness in your knee.
Longer-Term Knee Pain Management Solution
When pain killers are no longer cutting it, the next step is an injection. These injections won’t turn you into Wolverine or Captain America, but they will provide some very welcome relief.
Your orthopedic specialist may administer a corticosteroid injection to reduce inflammation and pain for several weeks or months. The steroid is injected into the joint area using a special needle, coupled with an anesthetic to lessen pain at the injection site. Another type of injection uses a lubricant called hyaluronic acid, which healthy cartilage produces naturally to lubricate joints to help reduce friction and pain.
Injections are a great option as they can reduce inflammation, pain, and stiffness for longer than anti-inflammatory pills, making it easier to move, exercise, and perform everyday tasks.
Longest-Term Knee Pain Management Solution
Speaking of scary movies, you know when the guy comes in with a chainsaw? Yeah, knee replacement surgery is not anything like that. Knee arthroplasty is a very common procedure that's been performed since 1919. In fact, almost 5 million Americans are rocking new knees. There are a few different types of knee surgeries:
- Total knee replacement: During a total knee replacement surgery—which lasts just a few hours—a specialized orthopedic surgeon will make an incision to expose the knee joint area, remove the damaged bones and tissue, and insert a new joint made of metal, plastic, or ceramic. Knee replacements can last more than a decade, making them the most long-lasting solution to knee pain.
- Partial knee replacement: Just like the name implies, a partial knee replacement only substitutes the most damaged part of the knee joint. This allows you to get the-new-and-improved knee with less recovery time.
- Arthroscopic: Nothing is actually replaced during this type of surgery. Arthroscopy will just make some minor repairs to the joint or cartilage.
Following surgery, you will need to take it easy for a few weeks, and you may want to call in some favors to friends and family to help you get around. You'll need a few weeks before trying stairs, so prior to surgery you may want to move everything you will need to the same living space.
You will also want to be careful to avoid infection. Artificial knees fight infections differently than our natural knees, so call your doctor if you run a fever, experience chills, or notice an unusual amount of swelling and tenderness around your knees.
Once your new knee is “broken-in,” you will be able to return to many of your usual activities. Trade high-impact activities that put a lot of stress on your knee joints, like running or skiing, for gentler options like swimming. Your orthopedic surgeon will be able to provide you with more specific recommendations as they follow up with you in the days and months following surgery.
The Happy Ending to Knee Pain
Your knee pain can have a happy ending. Living life with pain-free joints can help you get back to pickleball with your neighbors, errands with your puppies, or playing horsey for your grandkids. Six months from now, you'll be glad you took care of your knee pain.