Even simple, everyday habits can increase the pain from knee osteoarthritis.
When you live with osteoarthritis — the most common type of arthritis — knee pain and stiffness can seem difficult to avoid. Your knees and other joints may feel swollen, especially after being active, and the symptoms can worsen over time. More than just “wear and tear” on your joints, osteoarthritis is a joint disease. Some of the factors that can worsen knee osteoarthritis pain won’t come as a surprise. For example, if you’ve had a long career working at a job that requires you to stand for extended periods of time, bend a lot, or lift heavy objects, this can impact your cartilage, or the connective tissue in the joints between bones. When cartilage wears away, this causes swelling, pain, and trouble moving the knee joint. Athletes who sustained injuries, even long ago, can also be at risk for faster cartilage breakdown and osteoarthritis.
As osteoarthritis progresses, the knee and other bones may break down and develop what are called spurs, which are growths around the bone’s edges. Little pieces of bone or cartilage can also break off and float around in the knee joint, according to the Arthritis Foundation. In the later stage of osteoarthritis, the cartilage between the knee bones wears away completely, causing bone to rub against bone, which can lead to even more pain as well as joint damage.
An important part of managing osteoarthritis knee pain is working with your doctor. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms and when you feel knee pain most often, such as first thing in the morning, or during or after being physically active. You will also want to speak up if your pain is worsening. Although there are medications and surgery available for osteoarthritis, the best treatment for you may be different than that of someone else with the condition.
What’s more, controlling pain from osteoarthritis of the knee may be easier than you think. In fact, it could be a simple as taking an honest look at your daily habits, some of which may be triggering your joint pain. “People with osteoarthritis have a lot of control over behaviors that can help to reduce pain symptoms,” says Matt Garver, PhD, an exercise physiologist and an assistant professor in the department of nutrition and kinesiology at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. Often a mix of different approaches is most helpful for osteoarthritis.
Is your lifestyle contributing to your osteoarthritis pain? Find out if these habits may be harming your knee joints.
It may seem counterintuitive to exercise if you have joint pain, but the Arthritis Foundation tells people to be active. “The knee joint loves motion,” says Brian Halpern, MD, a sports medicine physician with the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and author of The Knee Crisis Handbook. The challenge is to find the best types of activities for you. Dr. Halpern recommends bicycling, swimming, and elliptical trainers, as well as strengthening exercises that help muscles support the knee joint.
Although everyone with osteoarthritis is different, Halpern says that exercises that tend to aggravate knee osteoarthritis are deep squats, lunges, and any movement that pounds on the joint. Additionally, some people with osteoarthritis are simply too active, says Wayne Johnson, MD, an orthopedic surgeon in Lawton, Oklahoma. For example, runners might need to cut back on running, while people who do other active things — like gardening, for example — should spread out their activities instead of trying to do it all in one day. Talk to your doctor about what types of exercise are safe for you given the severity of your osteoarthritis and the amount of pain you experience.
The more you weigh, the more stress is placed on the knee joint, which can trigger an increase in pain, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). What’s more, a study published in August 2017 in the journal Radiology found that when overweight and obese adults lost weight over a two-year period, they significantly slowed down their rate of knee cartilage degeneration.
People with knee osteoarthritis often know that healthy lifestyle habits like exercise and weight control are recommended, but they aren’t implementing them, Dr. Garver says. His research, which was published in the October 2014 issue of The Journal of Rheumatology found that meeting with others who have osteoarthritis and sharing similar challenges can help motivate people to change their habits and add an exercise routine into their life.
People who eat more fruit, as well as those who are active and generally in good health, tend to have lower levels of osteoarthritis pain, according to the results of a survey of 197 adults published in September 2015 in the journal Pain Research & Management. Plus, eating healthier and being active can help reduce weight, which can also help reduce stress on the knee joint. “In general, eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats, and avoid processed foods if you need to lose weight,” says Dr. Johnson.
Depression, sleep problems, and osteoarthritis pain appear to be linked, according to a study published in March 2015 in the journal Arthritis Care & Research that assessed sleep, pain, and depression symptoms in 288 adults over the course of a year. “The anxiety, stress, and worry that can go along with someone who’s depressed may minimize their ability to cope with osteoarthritis,” Johnson says. If you think you may be depressed, seek treatment immediately.
Vitamin D is crucial for bone health, as well as helping regulate the immune system. A study published in April 2014 in the journal Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases involving 769 adults with knee or hip pain revealed that a moderate level of vitamin D deficiency is correlated with increased pain levels. However, other studies suggest that taking vitamin D supplements may not be the answer to this issue: A June 2017 article published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that the effectiveness of vitamin D supplements for osteoarthritis was uncertain. It might be better to rely on other ways to get vitamin D besides taking supplements, such as eating foods specifically fortified with vitamin D like certain cereals, soy products, milk, and cheese; consuming fish; and even getting a bit of sunshine, which helps your body absorb vitamin D. Your doctor can test your vitamin D levels and make an appropriate recommendation.