Thinking About Knee Surgery? 6 Things to Try First

Therapies and tips to help you avoid the surgeon's knife.

Medically reviewed in August 2020

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Living with osteoarthritis knee pain can be frustrating and make you feel older than you really are. But it doesn't mean you have to give up the things you enjoy, like traveling or shopping. And it doesn't necessarily mean you need knee surgery, either. When pain medication isn’t cutting it, but you're not quite ready to take the plunge into knee replacement, you might be ready for something new. Studies have shown the following therapies and tips may help you find the relief you're looking for.

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Here's a sobering fact: Every extra pound you carry puts up to 3 pounds of pressure on your knees. To relieve that burden, look for a program that combines weight loss and exercise, which studies show is one of the best ways to improve joint pain and function. The key is sticking with low-impact activities, like walking. Walking regularly can shrink belly fat and build up your quadriceps and hamstrings. Strong thigh muscles act like shock-absorbers for your knees, giving them extra support.

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Doctors agree that a sensible diet of lean proteins, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables does a body good. While there's no strong evidence that supports a specific arthritis diet, adding a few anti-inflammatory foods to your shopping list may keep you on the right track. Look for foods rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) such as walnuts, avocado, flaxseeds, salmon and trout. These foods may rein in joint-damaging inflammation.

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Even if you watch your weight and exercise, you're bound to have tough days. Be sure to take the time to recover, and wear a knee brace when needed. Studies have shown that valgus knee braces (the kind with hinges on the sides) help people walk farther, with less pain. Doctors also suggest trying a simple elastic-sleeve knee brace, which may be more comfortable and affordable.

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When you have knee osteoarthritis, one of the problems inside your joint is a low amount of hyaluronic acid, the fluid that naturally lubricates and cushions your knee. The good news is that your doctor can replace it with a single injection. Experts recommend this therapy when your knee pain isn't kept in check with pills, steroid shots and lifestyle changes, because it's safer and has fewer side effects than long-term pain medication, especially for older people. While it can't reverse the damage in your knees, it may relieve nagging knee pain for up to six months.

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Spa therapy is one of the most popular drug-free ways to treat osteoarthritis in Europe, Japan and Israel. Studies show it may help with knee pain, stiffness and function for several months, especially when used along with an exercise program. Common spa treatments include knee massage, mud packs, mineral water baths and mobilization exercises in a heated pool. Be sure the spa staff is experienced in caring for people with osteoarthritis or ask your doctor for a referral to a licensed massage therapist.

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Before committing to knee surgery, speak with your doctor about your other options. A specialist trained to treat knee osteoarthritis, like an orthopedic surgeon, can talk you through the benefits and risks of injections and other therapies.

Remember, pain can't be easily measured, like your blood pressure or temperature. So, your doctor may not realize how much pain you're in. Be honest and clear about your symptoms and how they're affecting your life, so you can get the relief you deserve.

Medically reviewed in December 2019. Updated in August 2020.


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