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Assuming that your knee pain problem is not due to an acute injury—a broken bone or a life-threatening infection, for example—the first rule among knee pain remedies is to rest. Stop doing whatever it is that’s causing the pain.
This advice is especially true in cases of osteoarthritis (OA) as well as with sprains (stretched or torn ligaments) or strains (stretched or torn muscles or tendons) that may be affecting the knee joint.
Knee Pain Remedies: The RICE Advice
Editor’s note: Within this post, you’ll read about conditions that cause knee pain along with knee pain remedies, including the “RICE” protocol and over-the-counter medications along with tips on when to see a doctor and the type of prescription medications that may help. In a companion post, you’ll read about knee pain exercises, alternative treatments, and surgical options.
“Rest” is also the first letter of the well-known “RICE” protocol: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation.
- Rest. If the cause of your knee pain is OA, rest allows the inflamed knee joint to settle down. If your injury turns out to be a sprain or strain, rest prevents you from further damaging tissues in the surrounding area.
- Ice. Apply ice or a cold pack to the area of the knee that is hurting. Continue the cold applications for 15-20 minutes, several times a day.
- Compression. Compression should be tight enough to control swelling but loose enough not to interfere with circulation. Look for over-the-counter compression sleeves or elastic wraps. Ice applications and compression can be used at the same time.
- Elevation. Elevation involves positioning the leg so that the knee is higher than the heart to limit swelling.
Along with the RICE procedures, several over-the-counter drugs can help relieve pain.
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol, Datril, and several forms of Excedrin) is generally safe and effective for relieving knee pain, although not inflammation.
- Aspirin is considered one of the most effective methods of relieving pain, but it carries side effects, such as stomach-lining irritation and blood thinning.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen, are effective for knee pain management, but they also have side effects that include stomach irritation and gastrointestinal bleeding. They should not be taken by people with chronic kidney disease.
- Topical analgesics are capsaicin, salicylates, and counterirritants. Capsaicin is used to treat pain associated with arthritis and other conditions. It can provide temporary relief, but can irritate the skin and produce a burning sensation. Salicylates (Aspercreme, Bengay) contain the same pain-relieving substances as aspirin. Counterirritants like Icy Hot contain menthol plus salicylate or camphor. The active ingredient in Biofreeze is menthol.
When Do I See a Doctor to Treat My Knee Pain?
At-home knee pain remedies are for the first 24 to 48 hours following an injury or flare-up of an existing knee problem. If the pain and swelling continue or worsen for more than a couple of days, it’s time to see a doctor—preferably an orthopaedic surgeon.
The doctor will get your medical history, perform a physical exam, order x-rays, and prescribe stronger pain medications (see below). He or she might also recommend a knee brace for support or a shoe orthotic (insert) to shift the load away from the painful area of the knee.
X-rays and other imaging procedures could reveal any one of several knee conditions, all of which could cause knee pain. They include:
- torn meniscus
- loose bodies in the knee capsule
- ligament damage
Even with these more serious conditions, the treatment protocol remains the same unless surgery is needed immediately. The next steps for stopping knee pain will often be prescription medications and physical therapy (exercises).
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- Corticosteroids are anti-inflammatory medications taken orally or by direct injections into the knee joint. The injections may provide immediate relief, but have to be repeated every three to four months. A study at Tufts University found that even though steroid injections are known to reduce damage associated with inflammation, the shots also resulted in loss of cartilage.
- Hyaluronic acid is contained in synovial fluid that lines the knee joint. Replacing hyaluronic acid with an injected, synthetic form acts as a lubricant. The procedure has to be repeated about every six month and is not effective for some people.
- Tramadol (Ultram) is a synthetic narcotic, but not as addictive nor as irritating to the gastrointestinal system.
- Narcotics (Percocet, OxyContin, Vicodin) are the most powerful kinds of analgesic medications, but prescribed rarely and only when other medications have not been effective.
More on Knee Pain Remedies
In a companion piece on knee pain remedies, you’ll read about exercises, surgical options, and such complementary treatments as acupuncture, chondroitin, glucosamine, yoga, magnets, platelet-rich plasma, and stem cell therapy. Access that story by clicking here.
This article was originally published in 2017. It is regularly updated.