What To Take For Knee Pain? | Medications According To Symptoms And Causes

Written By on April 28, 2022 — Medically Reviewed By Mich Torres (PT)

Are you wondering what to take for knee pain? Well, the answer really depends on your symptoms, the cause of your pain, and your goals.

For example, you can take painkillers for severe pain. But if you want a long-term solution, specific supplements can keep your knee joint healthy and even keep cartilage degeneration at bay.

This article will provide an all-rounded approach to this issue, so don’t worry. Here’s a list of the topics we’ll cover — tap on any of them to go to its section:

Drugs to control the symptoms

Knee pain is usually accompanied by other symptoms such as swelling, stiffness, and limited functioning. To treat these, there are several things you can take:

For reducing pain and inflammation

All painkillers work by one chief mechanism — reducing inflammation. Based on whether you require a doctor’s prescription to buy them, painkillers fall under two classes (1):

1) Over the counter painkillers

These are medications that do not require a doctor’s prescription. But, this does not mean that they are less effective in reducing knee pain.

Acetaminophen, also known as Tylenol, falls under this category.

It’s the first-line medication to treat knee osteoarthritis pain, patellofemoral pain syndrome, and other joint problems. Although it’s a potent pain reliever, it doesn’t reduce inflammation. (1)

NSAIDs such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen do have anti-inflammatory effects.

These are quite effective in treating knee pain. But, they can’t be taken for more than a few days at a time. This is because they can cause severe side effects, like gastric ulcers or impaired kidney function. (1)

2) Prescription-strength painkillers

These do require a doctor’s prescription:

Corticosteroids

These are very strong anti-inflammatory agents that can provide immediate relief from severe pain. They can be taken in the form of pills or as injections.



But, they come with an increased risk of side effects. That’s why if they’re used, your doctor will recommend them for short periods. (1)

Opioids

These include drugs such as morphine and fentanyl. But, they are rarely prescribed to reduce pain in the knee, as their potential to cause dependence is too high. (1)

2) To improve knee joint function

Hyaluronic acid is one of the chief components of the fluid that cushions our joints. It can be injected directly into the joint to relieve pain.

It may help relieve knee pain in two ways. First, it can act as a lubricant and minimize the frictional forces that cause joint pain. Second, it can also reduce inflammation. (1)

Yet, not all patients respond equally to this treatment. Booster doses may be required every 6 to 12 months for continued pain relief for those who find it beneficial. (1)

Adapt the medication to the cause of your knee pain

To treat knee pain, you must know what caused it in the first place. If you don’t know that yet, it’s best to go to physical therapy first.

That way, your therapist will help you determine what’s going on and recommend the best treatment for you.

With that said, these are some common causes of painful knees and what to take for each:

Knee osteoarthritis

If you are older than 50 and have no history of trauma, this may be what is causing your knee pain. (2)

In knee osteoarthritis, the main cause of pain is joint cartilage breakdown by inflammation.

So, treatment should reduce inflammation, prevent further joint breakdown, and promote joint healing.

  • For inflammation: Acetaminophen, NSAIDs, and corticosteroids are all effective.
  • To prevent further worsening: Conservative treatments for knee OA like going to a physical therapist, losing weight, or exercising.
  • Promote joint healing: Supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM can help repair cartilage.

Learn more: Medicine for knee osteoarthritis – what works?

Rheumatoid arthritis

This condition is seen about three times more commonly in women. It usually occurs in older adults, but it can affect any age group. (3)

Here, knee pain is caused by the immune system attacking the joint tissue. It also has an inflammatory component.

Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis targets two things. One is the immune system, and the other is the inflammation. (3)

Drugs that inhibit our body’s immune system are usually the first line of treatment, while painkillers that target inflammation are second-line. (3)


Knee Force Knee Sleeve

In short, treatment for knee pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis is done using:

  • Immune system regulators: This is a unique category of drugs specifically used to treat autoimmune disorders.
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs: Acetaminophen, NSAIDs, and corticosteroids are commonly used, but only for short periods.

Related: What doctor to go to for knee pain – orthopedist or rheumatologist?

Knee ligament injury

If you recently fell or twisted your knee accidentally, and are now having knee pain, one of your knee ligaments may be injured.

Our knee is supported by several ligaments. Sudden abnormal movements can cause them to shear or even tear. Such injuries can take anywhere from months to weeks to heal. (4)

For such injuries, the go-to protocol is RICE.

RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen can also help reduce knee pain.

If this does not work, your knee injury may be severe and require professional help.

Go deeper: How to heal a sprained knee quickly?

Other less common causes

There are several other causes of knee pain. These conditions cannot be treated at home and always require help from your doctor. Some of them are:

Medication to promote joint health

There are some essential substances that our body requires to protect our knee joint cartilage and help it regenerate. Like glucosamine or chondroitin.

These are normally obtained from our diet. But their demand can increase in specific conditions, like after an injury, or a degenerative joint disease.

In these cases, they can be taken in the form of supplements. So, here is a list of supplements that may help relieve joint pain through different mechanisms (5):

FAQs

What can I take for knee joint pain?

If you want quick relief, you can take painkillers for a short period.

What to take for sore knees?

Instead of taking anything, try first the RICE protocol: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. If that doesn’t provide pain relief -or not enough-, try some OTC painkillers for a few days at most.

What OTC medicines treat knee pain?

Tylenol and NSAIDs are a few examples. But, they cannot be taken for more than a few days at a time.

Conclusion: What can you take for knee pain?

Several medications and supplements can help treat knee pain. But, the best way to treat knee pain is by identifying the cause and then targeting it.

While at-home treatments and over-the-counter medications can help mild knee pain, always consult a doctor if your knee pain is severe.



Resources

  1. Steinmeyer, Juergen et al. “Pharmacological treatment of knee osteoarthritis: Special considerations of the new German guideline.” Orthopedic reviews vol. 10,4 7782. 12 Dec. 2018.
  2. Hsu H, Siwiec RM. “Knee Osteoarthritis.” Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan.
  3. Chauhan K, Jandu JS, Goyal A, et al. “Rheumatoid Arthritis.” Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan.
  4. Evans J, Nielson Jl. “Anterior Cruciate Ligament Knee Injuries.” Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan.
  5. Liu, Xiaoqian et al. “Dietary supplements for treating osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” British journal of sports medicine vol. 52,3 (2018): 167-175.
  6. “Osteoarthritis of the Knee.” Arthritis Foundation. Retrieved on April 2022 from: https://www.arthritis.org/diseases/more-about/osteoarthritis-of-the-knee
Author
Sony Sherpa (MD)
Sony Sherpa is a board-certified clinical doctor and currently, she is working as a medical officer in the emergency department of a renowned hospital. With a medical degree completed at a young age, she writes medical articles with accuracy owing to her medical knowledge and thorough background research.