No real surprise here, but knee pain is hard to ignore. You feel it with just about every move you make: Getting up, sitting down, walking, bending, squatting, leaning, twisting, taking the stairs. You name it.
And if you're active, an achy knee can also make that first half-mile of a jog or five minutes of a HIIT workout pretty miserable — or totally disrupt your exercise routine, if the pain is bad enough.
It's not long before you're looking to do something about it, but what's the best way to get knee pain relief? And should you see a doctor about it?
Knowing how to get rid of knee pain starts with trying to get to the bottom of why your knee hurts in the first place, as well as whether the pain warrants seeing a doctor or if there are things you can safely try at home first.
What causes knee pain?
"Knee pain commonly occurs when something is causing irritation or inflammation in the knee joint," explains Dr. Jeremy Fleeks, a sports medicine doctor at Houston Methodist. "There are a few different reasons for this, some of which are more common in certain demographics than others."
The most common causes of knee pain include:
- Overuse (too much activity) – which can also lead to misuse
- Growing pains – such as growth plate changes in young people
- Arthritis – typically in older adults
- Injury – meniscus or ligament (ACL, MCL, PCL, LCL) tears
Of those, only injury is cause for immediate action. If you experienced an acute injury to the knee — felt or heard a pop, for instance — make an appointment with your doctor.
"Knee injury isn't always overt, though," warns Dr. Fleeks. "If achiness is isolated to one knee and you're not able to bear weight, fully extend your leg or there's significant swelling, those are signs to see a doctor."
If there are no such signs of injury, Dr. Fleeks says it's safe to try treating the other types of knee pain at home first.
How to get knee pain relief at home
When it comes to relieving knee pain at home, options can include:
- Applying ice
- Taking a pain reliever
- Using a heating pad
- Foam rolling
- Using a massage gun
- Modifying your workouts
With so many options, you might wonder how to know which is right for your specific issue. Dr. Fleeks points out that it depends on the most likely cause of your knee pain.
Ice, heat, pain relievers and beyond: Where should you start?
For starters, if your knee pain is due to an injury, your doctor will provide a post-injury care plan for you to follow. Stick to those instructions closely, since some of the remedies above can do more harm than good if initiated too early.
"If it's inflammation from arthritis or perhaps overuse, ice can be a great first step since it helps reduce the swelling leading to pain," explains Dr. Fleeks. "This can also help reduce reliance on pain relievers."
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen, help reduce inflammation and thereby alleviate pain. Acetaminophen also helps relieve pain, but it's important to note that it doesn't reduce inflammation. So, which is the best painkiller for knee pain? It depends.
"Any underlying health issues and medications a person is taking need to be considered," says Dr. Fleeks. "Someone with an ulcer or acid reflux will want to avoid taking NSAIDs for more than a day or two since these medications can exacerbate their symptoms."
People taking anticoagulants, commonly known as blood thinners, need to be careful with NSAIDs since drug interactions are possible, potentially increasing the risk of bleeding.
"Someone who doesn't have any contraindications can take either type of pain reliever, but NSAIDs are best if the pain is thought to be caused by inflammation," says Dr. Fleeks. "Acetaminophen can be alternated with NSAIDs if there's a lot of pain, such as after a knee injury."
A heating pad can help some types of knee pain, particularly when muscle stiffness that pulls on knee tendons and ligaments is what's causing irritation.
"When muscles surrounding the knee — quadriceps, hamstring, calf — are tight, it places stress on the knee joint," explains Dr. Fleeks. "Heat helps improve blood flow to the area, relaxing and loosening those tight muscles so there's less stress on the tendons and ligaments in the knee."
Stretching, foam rolling and using a massage gun can also help relieve muscle tightness that's contributing to knee pain. So can listening to your body and taking steps to prevent overuse or misuse of your knee joint and the surrounding muscles. Dr. Fleeks always recommends gradually increasing the progression of your exercise routine and monitoring for any achiness between activities.
Rest can help prevent overuse, but it doesn't mean you have to stop exercising altogether. It might just mean doing less — scaling back on the intensity or duration — or doing something else, like modifying a workout so you're jumping less. And workout modifications can sometimes be necessary for certain types of knee pain.
"Your doctor can help you stick to your exercise goals without contributing to knee pain, finding ways to still work your muscles but limiting the chance of exacerbating an underlying issue," explains Dr. Fleeks. "If you've gotten a diagnosis that arthritis is the cause of pain behind the knee, for instance, and you're noticing knee pain when squatting, we might recommend avoiding deep squats and doing a leg press instead."
Signs it's time to see a doctor about knee pain
If you've tried the at-home remedies for achy knees and you're still dealing with pain, it's time to see a sports medicine doctor.
"If you've tried ice, over-the-counter medications, rest and your knee pain isn't significantly improving after a few days, schedule an appointment with your doctor," says Dr. Fleeks. "It's also important to consult your doctor if it's not just an achy knee. If you also have pain in other joints — fingers, elbows, neck — this is when we need to consider running tests to rule out a rheumatological disorder or autoimmune condition."
And if knee pain is new and you're worried about it, don't be shy about looking for help.
"I often have patients who say, 'I don't know if I need to be here or not, but my knee hurts and this isn't an issue I've had before, so I want to get it checked out,'" adds Dr. Fleeks. "And this is totally fine to do."
He adds that a lot of the time an achy knee is simply a sign of overuse — your knee's way of letting you know you overdid it. But injuries can sometimes be subtle.
"It's OK to consult a doctor and get those concerns and questions answered," says Dr. Fleeks. "The last thing we want is for a knee injury to go untreated, potentially turning into something worse as you continue to exercise through it."