Living with osteoarthritis of the knee can be overwhelming. For starters, each experience is different but most healthcare professionals take the same cookie-cutter approach – exercise, keep a healthy weight, and take your meds.
As an evidence-based physical therapist, that frustrates me to no end. See – to really live with your knee osteoarthritis, you need advice tailored to you. Your symptoms, your lifestyle, and your goals.
So, below I’ll walk you through the strategies I give to my knee OA patients in the clinic. I promise you that this will help you live with this condition on your terms.
This is what you’ll learn. Tap on any of the topics to go to its section:
- Make sure you fully understand your condition
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions
- Keep track of your symptoms
- Flare-ups will happen, plan ahead
- Pay attention to your mental health
- Keep other health conditions under control
- Follow the usual advice to the best of your ability
Let’s get to it!
1) Make sure you fully understand your condition
But the first step to living with this condition is fully comprehending what it is.
You can check our full knee osteoarthritis guide to learn all about this condition. However, I’d recommend you also discuss it with your healthcare team.
Check your understanding of the condition with them. Make sure you have the concepts right – this will help you manage knee pain better. (1)
Questions to check your understanding of knee osteoarthritis
- In your own words – how would you define knee osteoarthritis?
- What do you think is happening in or around your knee joint?
- What do you think is the best way to treat this issue?
- What do you expect will happen?
Give detailed answers to these questions and discuss them with your healthcare providers. This can clear any misunderstandings that could affect your treatment down the road.
2) Don’t be afraid to ask questions
From a patient’s perspective, I know it’s very hard to muster up the courage to ask your doctor specific things about your condition.
Most doctors have very tight schedules. There’s little time to talk and make sure you’re leaving the office with no questions left.
- Give you peace of mind.
- Reduce the anxiety around your diagnosis.
- Help you plan ahead.
- Improve your treatment outcomes.
If you’re not satisfied with the information your provider gave you, please speak up.
To make things easier, you can use these questions to help you get valuable information during consult:
- How severe is my knee OA?
- What treatments are available for me?
- Will I need steroid injections?
- Do I need knee joint replacement surgery? Will it be a partial or total knee replacement?
- Apart from exercise and weight loss, what else can I do for pain relief?
Pro tip: Take 10 min to brainstorm your worries and fears around knee OA. Write everything down without a filter. Turn that into questions to bring to your next appointment.
3) Keep track of your symptoms
More than joint stiffness or inflammation, pain is the most frustrating part of developing osteoarthritis. (3)
See, knee osteoarthritis is a unique experience for each person. For some, pain is mild and manageable. For others, it’s unpredictable and can be crippling at times. (3)
As such, you must keep track of your symptoms. It may be annoying at first, but it will help you see patterns over time.
Doing this will also help during your physical therapy sessions – your therapist can give you specific pain management strategies for your case.
How to keep track of your knee OA symptoms
Writing down the following and re-checking your answers now and then:
What decreases pain for you?
Some examples include:
- Specific exercises, walking.
- Wearing a knee brace.
- Cold/Heat packs.
- A good night’s sleep.
- Being in a good mood.
- Doing things you enjoy.
- Warm weather.
What makes your joint pain worse?
Common examples include (3):
- Sitting and/or standing for too long.
- Walking long distances.
- Overdoing it with exercise.
- Specific activities (squatting, kneeling, climbing stairs…).
- Damp/cold weather.
- Lack of sleep.
4) Plan ahead for when knee pain flares up
When a flare-up happens – because it will happen -, it will be extremely useful to have a plan. Or at least a list of stuff you already know helps with your pain.
That’s one of the reasons why tracking symptoms is so helpful.
I tell my patients to have a “first aid kit” for flare-ups. It should have things that can reduce your arthritis pain.
I always recommend having at least:
- A high-quality knee sleeve. The compression can help reduce pain and swelling. You’ll also be able to do your daily tasks easier while wearing it. (4)
- Pain relievers. It can be over-the-counter NSAIDs or prescription drugs.
- Creams to rub on your painful joint. It can be an ointment with menthol, capsaicin, or a specific medication – choose whatever works for you. (4)
Now, as frustrating as they are, flare-ups are also learning opportunities. So when you can, try to recap what happened during the 2 weeks before the pain increased.
You may be able to identify the events that triggered the flare-up, which could reduce your risk of having another one in the future.
This may help: Top home remedies for knee OA.
5) Pay attention to your mental health
Feeling anxious, depressed, and frustrated about your knee arthritis is entirely normal. You may fear what may happen in the future if you have severe osteoarthritis, too. (1)
But, if these feelings linger for too long, they can make your pain worse. They can affect your relationships and decrease your work productivity as well. (1)
For those moments, it can help to focus on what you CAN do. Do more of the things you enjoy, that give you a feeling of independence and fulfillment.
Yet, if the feelings get too heavy, please seek help.
Discuss your fears and worries with a healthcare professional. Having an honest conversation with your doctor or physio about your prognosis can help a lot with this.
You may also need to work with a psychologist. These professionals will help you find coping strategies for those emotions, more so if your symptoms are affecting your self-esteem. (1)
6) Have other health problems under control
Depending on your medical history, you may have some risk factors that predispose you to worse symptoms.
The most common are rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. If they aren’t under control, these conditions can increase your knee pain and even speed up cartilage deterioration. (5)
So, if you have other diseases, please keep them in check. Don’t miss your medical appointments and follow your treatment so they don’t worsen your knee OA.
7) Follow the usual advice to the best of your ability
When it comes to living with this condition, the cookie-cutter advice of exercising and losing weight tends to work for most people.
Regular physical activity provides incredible benefits. It keeps your cardiovascular system healthy and your muscles strong. On top of that, it’s amazing at managing pain from knee OA. (4)
The tricky part is that some people find it hard to adhere to an exercise program. If that’s you, give these a try (4):
- Stick to a daily walk. Doing this consistently will keep your joints healthy.
- Try exercising with other people. Tai-chi and yoga are excellent disciplines for this condition.
- Add more movement into your daily routine – walk places, take the bike instead of the car, etc.
Now, about losing weight…
So, medical associations recommend losing weight slowly with a long-term approach. They suggest doing this by (4):
- Focusing on eating nutrient-dense foods, like the ones in this list from the Arthritis Foundation.
- Adding physical activity you enjoy.
Can you live a long life with knee osteoarthritis?
Absolutely! Knee wear and tear is not a life-threatening condition.
Is walking good for osteoarthritis of the knee?
Yes! It’s one of the best things you can do for managing knee pain in this condition. It also helps you keep your knee healthy for longer. (4)
Conclusion: How do you live with osteoarthritis of the knee?
You can have a fulfilling life even after a knee joint OA diagnosis. As you could see, it’s mostly about knowing your condition and having good lifestyle habits.
Finally, remember that the more you know about your condition, the better you’ll be at handling it. Healthcare professionals are here to help you, don’t be afraid to ask us questions.
- Carmona-Terés, Victoria et al. “Understanding knee osteoarthritis from the patients’ perspective: a qualitative study.” BMC musculoskeletal disorders vol. 18,1 225. 30 May. 2017, DOI: 10.1186/s12891-017-1584-3
- Darlow, Ben et al. “Living with osteoarthritis is a balancing act: an exploration of patients’ beliefs about knee pain.” BMC rheumatology vol. 2 15. 12 Jun. 2018, DOI: 10.1186/s41927-018-0023-x
- Pouli, Nektaria et al. “The experience of living with knee osteoarthritis: exploring illness and treatment beliefs through thematic analysis.” Disability and rehabilitation vol. 36,7 (2014): 600-7. DOI: 10.3109/09638288.2013.805257
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Management of Osteoarthritis of the Knee (Non-Arthroplasty) Evidence-Based Clinical Practice Guideline (3rd Edition). https://www.aaos.org/oak3cpg Published August 31, 2021.
- Musumeci, Giuseppe et al. “Osteoarthritis in the XXIst century: risk factors and behaviours that influence disease onset and progression.” International journal of molecular sciences vol. 16,3 6093-112. 16 Mar. 2015, DOI: 10.3390/ijms16036093
- “Living with arthritis.” Versus Arthritis, formerly known as Arthritis Research UK. Retrieved on March 2022. From: https://www.versusarthritis.org/about-arthritis/living-with-arthritis/