The knee is the biggest joint in the body, and it carries a lot of weight. As people get older, the task of carrying this weight can wear down the cartilage that covers the ends of the bones in a joint.
Cartilage is the tissue that makes sure the bones pass over each other smoothly. It also acts as a kind of cushion or shock absorber.
If the cartilage wears away, the bones will rub together. This can lead to osteoarthritis (OA), the most common type of arthritis.
OA causes pain, swelling, and stiffness. People with OA of the knee may find it hard to exercise, climb stairs, or even walk.
Symptoms that can appear at the early stages of knee OA are:
- Pain, especially on bending and straightening the knee
- Swelling, caused by a buildup of fluid in the joint, or by bony growths called osteophytes that form as the cartilage breaks down
- Warmth in the skin over the knee, especially at the end of the day
- Tenderness when pressing down on the knee
- Stiffness when moving the joint, especially first thing in the morning, or after a period of inactivity
- Creaking or cracking on bending, known as crepitus
Activity can make symptoms worse, leading to pain at the end of the day, especially after a long time of standing.
If the knee is red, the person has a fever, or both symptoms occur, the problem is likely to be a different condition to osteoarthritis.
Treatment of OA depends on how serious the condition is.
There are some home remedies and over-the-counter treatments for OA of the knee that can be used at home and are readily available from the pharmacy. These treatments include:
- Applying heat or cold. Heat relieves stiffness and cold can ease pain. The heating pad or ice pack should be covered with a towel so as not to burn the skin.
- An assistive device, such as a cane or walker, can help take some of the weight off of the knees. Holding the cane in the opposite hand to the painful knee is most effective.
- Pain relief medications are available over the counter. These should always be used with caution as they can cause side effects.