Many home or over-the-counter remedies can effectively treat knee arthritis pain, making day-to-day living easier and more comfortable. Some home therapies are one-time treatments that provide fast, short-term relief. Other remedies involve changing daily habits.
Home treatments for arthritis pain relief include:
A Warm or Cold Compress
Heat or cold treatment may provide immediate, short-term pain relief from knee arthritis.
Heat therapy may reduce pain and improve circulation in and around the knee joint. Applying a warm compress to the knee can also relieve muscle and joint stiffness and help warm up the knee before activity.
Heating can be achieved by using hot water bottles, heated packs/ wraps, hot towels, and electric heating pads.
Cold therapy reduces inflammation, pain, and swelling. It also decreases nerve conduction, potentially slowing down pain signals to the brain. A cold compress may be applied to an arthritic joint periodically and/or after physical activity.
A cold wrap, gel pack, a bag of ice, or a bag of frozen vegetables (such as peas) may be used as a cold compress.
Important precautions: To avoid skin and/or nerve damage, do not to use cold and/or heat therapy for longer than 15 to 20 minutes at a time. In addition, compresses should not be used in combination with topical medications, as there is a risk of injuring the skin and/or altering the medications effectiveness. Special caution should be exercised in the setting of diabetes or other conditions that may cause decreased skin sensitivity.
Resting the Knee
A painful arthritic knee can ‘flare up’ following an increase in physical activity or intensive exercise. Sometimes such a flare is best treated with a brief period of rest, for a couple of hours or even a day. (In general, it is advised to consult with a doctor if undiagnosed knee pain is severe or lasts for more than a couple of weeks.)
Electrical Stimulation Therapy
Research suggests1,2,3 that electrical stimulation devices, sometimes called e-stimulation or e-stim devices, can reduce knee arthritis pain using electrical pulses. These devices are sometimes used by physical therapists and are available to buy online and in stores without a doctor’s prescription.
The strength of electrical pulses can usually be adjusted, ranging from mild to strong. For most people e-stim treatment is painless, but for some people it is uncomfortable.
Most e-stim devices fall into one of two categories: Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) or Pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF).2 E-stim does not work for everyone. It is typically used in combination with other knee arthritis treatments, such as an anti-inflammatory diet.
Over-the-Counter Pain Medications
Oral pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) may temporarily relieve knee arthritis pain. These medications carry side effects and are not recommended for long-term daily use. In particular, NSAIDs can cause stomach upset, and regular use can lead to a bleeding ulcer, which can be potentially life-threatening. Acetaminophen may also be used to relieve arthritis pain and may have fewer side effects when used appropriately (health professionals typically recommend less than 3,000 mg per day). People older than age 72 are advised to consult with their health care providers, as a lower dose of medication may be appropriate.
Topical pain relievers. Topical creams, gels, and patches can be applied directly onto the skin over the knee. They can provide fast, localized pain relief and are less likely to carry serious risks and cause side effects.
Doctor and patient should discuss medication in the context of the patient's lifestyle, existing medications, severity of pain, and medical history.
Some people find taking a daily supplement reduces chronic knee arthritis pain. The onset of pain reduction may take weeks to months. The pain reduction is usually not dramatic, but it may be helpful, especially when combined with exercise and an anti-inflammatory diet.
The most commonly used supplements to treat knee arthritis include:
- Chondroitin sulfate is found in cartilage. It helps cartilage retain water, keeping joints healthy. Limited research suggests that, on average, chondroitin supplements reduced pain by 8 points on a 100-point scale.4
- Glucosamine, like chondroitin sulfate, is a natural component of cartilage. While popular, researchers have been unable to conclude whether or not glucosamine helps reduce knee arthritis symptoms.5,6 Some evidence suggests it may improve knee function when combined with chondroitin. These supplements should be avoided by anyone allergic to shellfish.
- Turmeric and/or curcumin. Found in the spice turmeric, curcumin has antioxidant properties that can potentially decrease inflammation and inhibit arthritis pain.7,8,9
Supplements tend to be controversial in the medical field. They are not subject to approval by the FDA and do not fall under the same rigorous and strict standards that traditional medications do. Patients may ask their healthcare providers and pharmacists for suggestions on which brands they believe have the highest quality products.
Relaxation techniques, such as meditation, visual imagery, biofeedback, or hypnosis can be used to lessen knee pain. While these techniques may provide short-term pain relief, they are typically most effective when practiced regularly.