Overcoming arthritic knee pain and achieving knee pain relief is one of the greatest orthopaedic treatment challenges there is. Knee arthritis is the most commonly diagnosed cause of knee pain in people over 50 and achieving knee pain relief from knee arthritis is the main reason why people seek a knee replacement (Losina et al 2012, Nguyen et al 2011).
In 2010, 25,970 total knee replacements were performed in Australia, representing a 67% increase over the past seven years and a direct cost to the health system of $2.24 billion (consisting of $900 million in hospitalisation, $8.5 million on GP visits, $2.2 million on specialist visits and $1.4 million on other practitioners).
Despite this, 15-30% of patients report no or little functional improvement in the 12 months following a knee replacement and those people who have a knee replacement too early, report dissatisfaction with their knee replacements (Paulsen 2011).
Knee osteoarthritis can be confusing and frustrating
Pain from knee osteoarthritis can range from barely perceptible to unbearable. This is especially confusing when the amount off pain reported does not correlate with the severity of change found on X-ray (Cubukou et al 2012, Schiphof et al 2013). Likewise, most people over the age of 50 have structural abnormalities consistent with osteoarthritis on MRI but only one third have pain.
The Source of Knee Osteoarthritis Pain
As the cartilage covering the surface of bones where they meet each other (i.e. joints) doesn't have a nerve supply, it is unlikely that it is a source of pain. Other sources of arthritic knee joint pain that have been suggested are:
1. the underlying bone;
2. the synovial membrane (which lines the inner cavity of the joint);
3. the cartilages (or menisci which act as cushions within the knee joint);
4. the ligaments and joint capsule (which holds the knee together); and
5. the fat pad (which sits just under the bottom part of the knee cap).
There is bad news and good news if an MRI shows that you have a horizontal cleavage meniscal tear in your knee. The bad news is that you have torn the cartilage where it has a nerve supply and this can cause immense pain and discomfort especially while sleeping.
The good news is that where there is a nerve supply, there is a blood supply which means that if the appropriate conservative treatment is given, the tear can heal, albeit slowly (it can take up to 12 months).
If you decide to have an arthroscope (partial meniscectomy), research has shown that recovery takes the same length of time, but your knee will become a lot more arthritic, a lot more quickly compared to if you just stick with physiotherapy (Sihvonen et al 2013, Katz et al 2013).
The Causes of Osteoarthritic Knee Pain that You Can Change
Osteoarthritic knee pain increases as your weight increases and as your quadriceps muscle strength decreases (Nguyen et al 2011, Amin et. all 2009, Segal et al 2010. Therefore, the two most important changes that you can make to achieve arthritic knee pain relief is to reduce your weight and increase the strength of your quadriceps muscle.
Research has shown that it is not only knee pain but the fear of pain that can reduce your quadriceps muscle strength (Hodges et al 2009). Furthermore, middle aged people who have decreased quadriceps strength report increased knee pain and MRI scans show accelerated osteoarthritic changes in the knee (Wang et al 2012).
Incorrect knee joint alignment, poor quadriceps muscle control, faulty movement and excessive loading all lead to excessive or abnormal forces being placed upon the structures and tissues of the knee. This can lead to pain which further inhibits your quadriceps muscle strength thereby perpetuating and accelerating your knee degeneration. (Hayashi et al 2012, McConnell and Read 2014).
How to Achieve Arthritic Knee Pain Relief
For treatment to be successful, it must therefore involve:
- Reducing your knee inflammation and pain;
- Unloading the painful knee structures and tissues;
- Promoting healing
- Correcting joint alignment;
- Improving muscle control and strength especially that of the quadriceps muscle;
- Optimising your everyday postures and movements (e.g. walking) so that the most ideal forces possible are placed on your knee joint.
- Reduce your knee pain and inflammation
Inflammation is a breaking down process. It must therefore be limited for healing to take place. If you experience constant, throbbing pain and your knee feels warm apply cold packs (wrapped in a damp thin cloth) to your knee for 15 minutes at least 6 times a day (be sure to check your skin every 5 minutes for adverse reactions). Do this until the warmth, constant pain, night pain and morning stiffness in your knee recede.
Or if your knee pain is worse at the end of the day, apply a cold pack 3 or 4 times on the hour before you go to bed. This will help you sleep better and awake in the morning with less knee stiffness.
Unload your painful knee structures and tissues
You can unload your painful knee structures and tissues by:
- Reducing your weight. Research has indicated that this is the number one thing that you can do to achieve relief from arthritic knee pain;
- Avoiding painful positions, movements and activities (e.g. prolonged standing and walking);
- Using orthotics, wearing supportive shoes with good shock absorption, walking on softer surfaces (avoiding concrete, tiles or hardwood floors) and sitting down frequently (e.g. every 20 minutes);
- Taping and bracing your knee for added external support;
- Walking with elbow crutches for up to 2 weeks to enable reduce inflammation to recede and facilitate healing and repair.
To accelerate healing and optimise your knee's repair, employ "hands on" freeing up techniques, Bodyflow therapy (which improves circulation), Lipus Ultrasound (which stimulates the laying down of tissue), heat therapy (which increases activity) and easy pain-free movement, all of which have been proven to assist with healing.
Correct Joint Alignment
Your knee cap and knee joint alignment can be corrected by using "hands on" techniques to free up stiff joints and loosen tight soft tissues, applying tape or bracing to hold joints in correct alignment and then through targeted exercises that strengthen weak muscles and stretch tight, stiff soft tissues.
Improve the Control and Strength of Your Leg Muscles (Especially your Quadriceps)
Rehabilitation programs which improve the stability and strength of your core, hip and knee and which optimise the way that you move, have been shown to reduce knee pain for up to 12 months following physiotherapy. These programs have also been shown to improve the quadriceps muscle tone as well as the position of the knee cap on MRI scans (McConnell and Read 2014) indicating an increase in quadriceps muscle strength and therefore an improved dynamic stability of the knee.
Optimising your everyday postures and movements (e.g. walking)
Improving your balance and increasing your core, hip and knee muscle strength can ultimately lead to an improvement in everyday activities such as standing, rising from sitting, getting in and out of cars and walking.
And by "normalising" the forces on your knee during your everyday activities, the abnormal or excessive forces that cause the break down and irritation of the knee joint tissues and structures are eliminated.
Ultimately, these rehabilitation programs may help you avoid the need for a knee replacement or at the very least help improve your muscle function, mobility and quality of life thereby delaying your need for a knee replacement. They will also give you the best chance of an optimal outcome if you do have to have a knee replacement.
The evidence is clear. Specific physiotherapy treatment is a proven, safe, effective and lower cost alternative in helping you to attain knee pain relief from arthritis.
So if you do suffer from arthritic knee pain and you want the best, safest, most empowering way of overcoming your knee pain, you should consider a physiotherapy treatment program as your first option.
We might just be able to save our government's bottom line and you a lot of time and heartache.
If you have physical pain and would like a solution to your problem, please call 1 300 BODYWISE (263 994) for your FREE assessment and advice.
Until next time, Stay Bodywise.
Physiotherapist, Director Bodywise Health
* Rebates are available through your private insurance extras cover;
* For complex or chronic conditions, you may qualify for the EPC (Enhanced Primary Care Program) allowing you to receive 5 allied health services each calendar year with a referral from your GP. For more information, please call Bodywise Health now on 1 300 BODYWISE (263 994).
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