Almost 20% of adults have mild to severe osteoarthritis of the knee after the age of 45. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis or cartilage damage that affects people, and the incidence rises with age. Although osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease, due to the breakdown of cartilage, it also has an inflammatory component. Studies show a link between low-grade inflammation in the body and a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis too.
Some people have osteoarthritis of the knees and don’t know it because they’re symptom-free. It’s an insidious disease that your physician may discover when you get a knee x-ray, but it can also be present with a range of symptoms. Some of the most common manifestations are tenderness around the joint, early morning stiffness in the knees, knee instability, and reduced range-of-motion. These symptoms may get worse fairly quickly or progress at a very slow rate.
Once you know you have knee osteoarthritis, you’d probably like to know how to slow its progression and reduce knee stiffness and achiness. Let’s look at some ways, backed by science, that you can limit how quickly osteoarthritis of the knee limits movement and how to improve the symptoms.
Research shows that losing weight, if you’re overweight, can slow how quickly osteoarthritis develops. The more you weigh, the more stress you place on your knees and the more cartilage damage that results. In fact, each pound of weight you lose reduces the force on your knee by 4-fold when you walk. That’s substantial! One study found that relative to the leanest women, those who were obese had three-fold higher odds of developing knee osteoarthritis. Exercise that boosts the heart rate, preferably low impact, helps with weight control and increases blood flow and nutrient delivery to the cartilage and that’s a benefit.
Exercise is another lifestyle habit that can slow how quickly knee osteoarthritis develops. Work on strengthening your quadriceps muscles, the muscles in the front of your thighs. Studies show that quadriceps strengthening helps reduce knee pain. Make sure the strength training you do is balanced since asymmetric strength developing between the muscles in the front and the back of the thighs creates muscle imbalances that can increase cartilage breakdown.
Depending on the extent of your arthritis and the amount of pain you have, high-impact exercise may not be altogether off-limits. It’s best to get the advice of a sports medicine doctor or orthopedist about what’s healthiest for your knees.
If you do high-impact movements, don’t do them every time you train. Your physician may recommend wearing knee braces to give your knees added support. Some studies show that soft braces help with knee pain and stiffness. These include hinged knee braces and elastic sleeves. These braces place light pressure on the knees for added stability and support. Be sure to wear a supportive pair of exercise shoes. Let pain be your guide. If high-impact exercise bothers your knees, switch to a lower impact exercise like cycling.
Also, do at least a 5-minute warm-up before doing the bulk of your workout to boost blood flow to your lower body and get your muscles ready to work. After your workout is over, do a series of stretches to lengthen your quadriceps. Some people with knee osteoarthritis apply an ice pack after a workout to reduce discomfort and any underlying inflammation.
Diet and Supplements
Since osteoarthritis has an inflammatory component, eating an anti-inflammatory diet may have some benefits for relieving knee pain. Studies suggest that making smarter dietary choices may change the expression of genes that fuel inflammation and cartilage damage. Which diet is best?
According to the Arthritis Foundation, a plant-based diet may be beneficial. One study found that switching to a plant-based diet reduced osteoarthritis symptoms within 14 days. One explanation is the anti-inflammatory effects of eating a diet rich in antioxidants. As a bonus, a plant-based diet helps with weight control too. The Mediterranean is another diet with anti-inflammatory benefits. It emphasizes plant-based foods along with nuts, legumes, seeds, fish, and healthy fats from sources like extra-virgin olive oil. An advantage of a Mediterranean diet is it emphasizes fish as a protein source. Fatty fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids that have an anti-inflammatory effect.
The Mediterranean diet also has science behind it. One study that looked at 4,000 people found those who stuck most closely to a Mediterranean diet had a lower risk of developing joint problems. It’s an eating plan that offers lots of diversity and tasty recipes too. Also, limit refined carbohydrates, sugar, and trans-fat since they may boost inflammation.
With regard to specific nutrients, a study showed that getting more vitamin E may have benefits for knee osteoarthritis and slow its progression via several mechanisms. Research shows it may reduce the inflammatory component of knee osteoarthritis and may also help by helping to maintain the structure and function of the muscles that support the knee.
What about glucosamine and chondroitin? These are components found naturally in cartilage. Some research suggests that taking glucosamine and chondroitin in supplement form helps rebuild the damaged cartilage and slow the progression of osteoarthritis. However, studies yield inconsistent results. The consensus is that the benefits are modest, but it’s a safe combination to take and may lead to some improvement.
The Bottom Line
Osteoarthritis is inconvenient and sometimes painful but it’s quite common and something most people can comfortably live with. Plus, there’s evidence that lifestyle changes may slow the progression and help relieve the symptoms. Contrary to popular belief, arthritic joints need movement, and physical activity helps with weight control too. So, don’t take osteoarthritis sitting down!
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