What Is Knee Arthritis? Signs You Have It and How to Treat It

Learn about knee arthritis and get tips to manage the pain, including simple exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: Jan 11, 2024

Your knees are an important part of you. They are your body’s biggest joint, and they allow you to stand, move, and keep your balance. But like all the structures of your body, your knees can change with time. Activities that you once did easily, like running, jumping, or even getting up from a chair, may become more challenging. Your knees may feel stiffer, and you may notice changes in range of motion

One common reason for this is knee arthritis. It can cause discomfort, but conservative measures — especially exercise and physical therapy — can go a long way in providing relief when it comes to knee pain related to arthritis, says Samantha Charlotin, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health.

Here, learn more about knee arthritis — and find out how to feel better, especially with exercises from our Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Samantha Charlotin, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Charlotin is a Hinge Health physical therapist and specializes in the treatment of orthopedic and pelvic health concerns.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What Is Knee Arthritis?

There are two common types of arthritis that can affect the knee: knee osteoarthritis and inflammatory arthritis. Knee osteoarthritis develops when the smooth, spongy cartilage that cushions your knee joints changes. Over time, this can cause bones to sit closer together and sometimes rub against one another during movement, leading to irritation and inflammation.

Inflammatory arthritis, on the other hand, is the result of an overactive immune response, in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, resulting in chronic inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and spondyloarthritis are common types of inflammatory arthritis. While these conditions can affect your knees, it’s less common, says Dr. Charlotin. 

If you have knee arthritis, it’s usually from osteoarthritis.

Symptoms of Knee Arthritis

“Knee arthritis isn’t always painful,” points out Dr. Charlotin. In fact, many people have signs of knee arthritis but may not report any discomfort. But generally, if you do experience pain with knee arthritis, you’ll notice that it develops gradually. Other knee arthritis symptoms include:

  • Stiffness, making it harder to bend and straighten the knee.

  • Creaking or cracking noises in the knee

  • Pain that flares up after activity. 

  • A sensation that your knee is weak or about to buckle. 

  • Pain that worsens with weather changes.

What Causes Knee Arthritis?

Many different factors can contribute to arthritic changes in the knee. But first, we’ll say it loud and clear: There is nothing wrong with knee arthritis. It can be a normal part of life. “Virtually everyone develops some knee arthritis as they get older,” says Dr. Charlotin. Still, there are things that can contribute to the likelihood you’ll develop knee arthritis, including: 

  • Age. As you get older, changes to knee cartilage that lead to arthritis become more common, explains Dr. Charlotin. At least 80% of people over the age of 55 have some X-ray evidence of knee arthritis, but most don’t have pain.

  • Sex. Women are two to three times more likely than men to develop arthritis, including knee arthritis.

  • Weight. People who are overweight or obese have an increased risk of developing knee arthritis even if they’re otherwise healthy. Losing even a small proportion of your body weight can help lessen the stress on the knee, as can moving regularly and doing targeted knee strengthening exercises.

  • Genes. Some specific genes can raise the risk of developing knee arthritis. Genetics can also contribute to the shape of your bones or the alignment of your joints, which impacts your risk of developing the condition, too. While you can't control your genes, lifestyle factors — especially movement — can play a big role in reducing arthritis risk and symptoms.

  • Activities. Knee osteoarthritis has been linked to certain jobs that require a lot of squatting and kneeling. Some sports, like soccer, football, wrestling, boxing, cycling, or gymnastics, have also been linked to knee osteoarthritis. 

  • Past injury. Past injuries like knee fractures or meniscus or ligament tears can contribute to changes in the knee that can lead to arthritis later on. 

Knee Arthritis: A Hinge Health Perspective

Many people’s first instinct when they hear that they have knee arthritis is to limit moving the knee. After all, movement will make the pain worse, right? Wrong. “Movement is one of the best things you can do for knee arthritis,” stresses Dr. Charlotin. “It helps to keep blood flowing to the joint, keeping it strong and healthy.”

You won’t be able to control every factor involved in your knee arthritis, but with exercises from Hinge Health physical therapists (like the ones below), you’ll be able to manage pain and get your knees — and you — moving again.

Treatment Options for Knee Arthritis

You can’t reverse knee arthritis, but you can live a full and productive life with it. The following tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists and medical doctors can provide relief for knee arthritis.

Exercise. Motion is lotion when it comes to your joints, and that includes your knees. “Exercise helps to increase your knee joint’s production of synovial fluid, which reduces friction in your joints,” explains Dr. Charlotin. 

Still, we know it isn’t always so easy to get moving, especially if your knees hurt. Movement, while at times painful, helps rehab the knee by increasing blood flow, and gradually improving the joint’s strength and flexibility. 

Physical therapy. Physical therapy for knee arthritis can be helpful for many people. A physical therapist can show you specific exercises that improve the health and function of your knee and surrounding muscles, advises Dr. Charlotin. A 2020 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that physical therapy was more effective than steroid injections for knee arthritis. 

You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit. 

Over-the-counter medications. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for knee arthritis pain. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.

Ice or heat therapy. Heat brings blood flow to the knee, which brings nutrients needed for healing. A hot shower, bath, water bottle, or moist towel that’s warmed in the microwave is best, says Dr. Charlotin. Ice can also provide relief and reduce swelling if the knee joint is inflamed. You may want to try both, and focus on the one that makes you feel better.   

Self-care. Lack of sleep and chronic stress have both been linked to knee arthritis symptoms. A 2020 study in the journal PLOS One found that people who slept less than seven hours a night were more likely to report knee arthritis pain. Another study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that chronic stress may be associated with chronic knee pain. Mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing may help improve sleep and lessen stress, says Dr. Charlotin, which, in turn, may help relieve some knee arthritis symptoms. 

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Exercises for Knee Arthritis

Strengthening and stretching exercises can go a long way toward helping relieve knee arthritis symptoms. “If you have knee arthritis, you may find that you often alter your activities, but this can cause tightness around the muscles of your knee joints,” points out Dr. Charlotin. These gentle moves recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists are a great starting point to help you stay active.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Eat Well for Healthy Knees

Some soreness in the knees may be related to inflammation in the area. An anti-inflammatory diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, and beans, can help to tamp down inflammation, says Dr. Charlotin. A 2022 review of 14 studies in the European Journal of Rheumatology found that a plant-based diet reduces knee osteoarthritis pain, slows cartilage changes in knee joints, and lowers inflammatory markers in the body that can hasten the progression of osteoarthritis. 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References

  1. Wallace, I. J., Worthington, S., Felson, D. T., Jurmain, R. D., Wren, K. T., Maijanen, H., Woods, R. J., & Lieberman, D. E. (2017). Knee osteoarthritis has doubled in prevalence since the mid-20th century. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(35), 9332–9336. doi:10.1073/pnas.1703856114

  2. Deveza, L. A., & Bennell, K. (2023, April 12). Patient Education: Osteoarthritis treatment (Beyond the Basics). UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/osteoarthritis-treatment-beyond-the-basics

  3. Deyle, G. D., Allen, C. S., Allison, S. C., Gill, N. W., Hando, B. R., Petersen, E. J., Dusenberry, D. I., & Rhon, D. I. (2020). Physical Therapy versus Glucocorticoid Injection for Osteoarthritis of the Knee. New England Journal of Medicine, 382(15), 1420–1429. doi:10.1056/nejmoa1905877

  4. Cho, Y., Jung, B., Lee, Y. J., Kim, M., Kim, E.-J., Sung, W.-S., & Ha, I.-H. (2020). Association between sleep duration and osteoarthritis and their prevalence in Koreans: A cross-sectional study. PLOS ONE, 15(4), e0230481. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0230481

  5. Nah, S., Park, S.-S., Choi, S., Jang, H.-D., Moon, J.-E., & Han, S. (2021). Association between Chronic Knee Pain and Psychological Stress in Those over 50 Years of Age: A Nationwide Cross-Sectional Study Based on the Sixth Korea National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (KNHANES 2013–2015). International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(18), 9771. doi:10.3390/ijerph18189771

  6. Dai, Z. (2022). A literature review on plant-based foods and dietary quality in knee osteoarthritis. European Journal of Rheumatology. doi:10.5152/eurjrheum.2022.21134