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Arthritis Knee Pain: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

If you are experiencing knee pain, there is a good chance that you are suffering from arthritis. Arthritis is a condition that affects the joints, making it difficult to walk, stand, or even climb stairs. And while there is a one-size-fits-all cure for arthritis knee pain, numerous treatments help lessen the symptoms and improve quality of life.

In this blog post, we'll discuss the different types of arthritis, the symptoms of arthritis knee pain, and some of the most effective treatment options. Let's get started.

What is Knee Arthritis?

Knee arthritis is a condition that causes the cartilage in the knee joint to break down. As an inflammation of the joint, it leads to pain, stiffness, and swelling that affects a person's ability to move and perform everyday activities.

Knee arthritis is concentrated in a small area, particularly the patellofemoral joint between the front of the knee and the kneecap, or the shin, thigh, and shin. Some patients report experiencing pain in both joints.

Knee arthritis is a degenerative disease, meaning it gets worse over time. The condition is also progressive, leading to joint damage and deformity if left untreated.

Knee Anatomy

To understand knee arthritis, it's important to have a basic understanding of knee anatomy. Three bones make up the knee joint: the femur (thighbone), the tibia (shinbone), and the patella (kneecap).

Ligaments connect these bones, which are strong bands of tissue that provide stability to the knee joint. The ends of the bones are covered with cartilage, a smooth tissue that allows the bones to move against each other without pain.

A thin, lubricating membrane called the synovium, which helps reduce joint friction, also surrounds the knee. Arthritis develops when this cartilage breaks down, leading to pain, swelling, and stiffness.

Types of Knee Arthritis

There are several types of arthritis, but the two most common ones affecting the knee are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.


Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, affecting more than 3.5 million adults in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The breakdown of cartilage causes the condition where bone degeneration and the formation of bone spurs occur.

Bone rubs on bone, which leads to bone producing more bone to protect itself. These knee bone spurs are called osteophytes, which protrude outward and cause damage to the surrounding tissues, ligaments, and muscles.

Osteoarthritis develops slowly over time or results from an injury like a torn ligament. The condition is more common in people over 65, but it can affect people of all ages.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects multiple joints in the body, including the knees. It's caused when the body's immune system attacks the synovium, leading to swelling, pain, and stiffness.

People with rheumatoid arthritis categorize rheumatoid arthritis pain in the knees as systematic (whole body), chronic (long-lasting), and inflammatory (swelling). It destroys cartilage and joint deformity due to excess fluid in the joints.

According to Knee-Pain-Explained, rheumatoid arthritis is 3x more common in women than men and usually affects people between the ages of 40 and 50. Patients report feeling flare-ups, or periods of pain and swelling, followed by remission, or a period of relief as symptoms subside.

Other less common types of arthritis include post-traumatic arthritis (which forms after an injury to the knee), septic arthritis (a bacterial infection of the knee joint), and gout (a type of arthritis that causes pain, swelling, and stiffness due to the buildup of uric acid in the joints).

Locations of Knee Arthritis

Knee arthritis pain can be felt in different ways depending on the type of arthritis and the location of the joint damage. Some people report feeling it in one area, while others feel it throughout the knee joint.

The most common location for osteoarthritis pain is in the medial compartment, located inside of the knee joint. It is where the cartilage wears down the most and bone spurs form. Patients also feel pain in the lateral compartment, which is the outside of the knee joint, and the patellofemoral compartment under the kneecap.

Rheumatoid arthritis pain, on the other hand, is usually felt in both knees simultaneously and is often described as achy and throbbing. Morning stiffness that lasts for more than an hour also often accompanies it.

Septic arthritis pain is usually felt in one knee and comes on suddenly. It's often accompanied by fever, chills, joint redness, and warmth. Gout pain usually starts in the big toe but also affects the knee. The pain is often described as burning, throbbing, and intense.

What are the Symptoms of Knee Arthritis?

The symptoms of knee arthritis vary depending on the type of arthritis and the severity of the condition. However, the most common symptom of knee arthritis is pain, ranging from a dull ache to a sharp, throbbing sensation. Other symptoms include:

  • Swelling
  • Joint deformity
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Weakness
  • Instability
  • Grating or creaking noises when moving the knee

Arthritis knee pain differs from person to person and can even come and go. The pain is typically worse when walking, going up or down stairs, or after standing for long periods—some people with arthritis knee pain report that their symptoms are worse in the morning or at night.

What Causes Knee Arthritis?

The most common cause of knee arthritis is the wear and tear of the cartilage that occurs with age. This type of arthritis is known as degenerative arthritis, resulting from years of stress on the knee joint.

Other causes of knee arthritis include:

  • Injury: A traumatic injury to the knee, such as a sports injury or car accident.
  • Infection: A bacterial infection, such as that of Staphylococcus aureus (staph), can lead to inflammation of the knee joint and the breakdown of cartilage. Fungal or viral infections can also cause arthritis.
  • Obesity: Excess weight puts additional stress on the knee joint, which develops arthritis.
  • Age: As you grow older and reach the age of 65, your risk of developing arthritis increases.
  • Genetics: Some forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, are hereditary.
  • Gender: Women are 3x more likely to develop arthritis than men.
  • Race: African Americans and Native Americans are more likely to develop arthritis than some Asian and Caucasian populations.

How is Knee Arthritis Diagnosed?

If you're experiencing knee pain, the first step is to see your doctor. They will conduct a physical examination and ask about your medical history. They may also order X-rays, MRIs, or other imaging tests to better look at the knee joint.

Doctors may also order blood tests to look for signs of inflammation or infection. In some cases, a fluid sample from the knee joint may be taken and analyzed for evidence of arthritis.

Once a diagnosis is made, your doctor will work with you to develop a treatment plan or refer you to a specialist for further care or treatment.

How is Knee Arthritis Treated?

There is no cure for arthritis, but several treatments help relieve pain and improve joint function. Below are some of the most common treatments for knee arthritis.

Non-surgical Treatments

  • Over-the-Counter or Prescription Pain Medication: Pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, help reduce pain and inflammation. Anti-Inflammatories such as Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAID) can also be used.
  • Acupuncture: Although it isn't a treatment on its own, acupuncture can be used in conjunction with other treatments to help relieve pain.
  • Weight Loss: Losing weight lessens the knee joint's stress and relieves pain.
  • Knee Arthritis Exercise: Exercise improves joint function and flexibility. A physical therapist can help you create an exercise program that's right for you.
  • Knee Injections: Doctors inject Corticosteroid injections (combination of steroid and local anesthesia) for swelling and Joint Lubricant Injections (gel-like substance) for lubrication to help alleviate pain and swelling.
  • Diet: Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and Omega-3 fatty acids and avoiding foods that trigger inflammation, like sweets, dairy, and gluten, helps reduce pain and swelling.
  • Ice and Heat: Applying ice to the knee relieves pain and inflammation. Heat may also help ease pain by directing blood flow to the knee joint.
  • Increased Movements: Because knees are around a joint capsule that contains "lubrication fluid" to help with movements, it is important to keep the knee moving to avoid "drying it out." It also helps make the pain more manageable.
  • Knee Braces: Wearing a knee brace takes the pressure off the knee joint and relieves pain.
  • Walking Aids: Using a cane or walker takes the pressure off the knee joint and improves mobility.
  • Knee Gel Pads: Placing gel pads on the knee cushions the joint and distributes weight more evenly, which can help to reduce pain.
  • Footwear: Wearing shoes with good arch support and shock absorption lessens the knee joint's stress.
  • Natural Remedies: Some believe that herbs such as ginkgo, ginger, and turmeric can help to reduce inflammation and pain. You can use many essential oils to relieve pain, such as peppermint oil, eucalyptus oil, and lavender oil.

Surgical Treatments

  • Total Joint Replacement Surgery: A surgical procedure in which the damaged knee joint is replaced with an artificial joint made of ceramic, plastic, or metal. It is usually only recommended for people who have severe arthritis and have not had success with other treatments.
  • Arthroscopy: A surgical procedure in which the doctor inserts a small camera into the knee joint to look for any damage. Once the damage is located, the doctor then repairs it with small surgical instruments.
  • Synovectomy: A surgical procedure in which the doctor removes the synovial membrane, which is the tissue that lines the joint and produces lubrication fluid. Doctors do this with a traditional surgical or arthroscopic surgery, which uses small incisions and a camera to guide the surgery.
  • Osteotomy: A surgical procedure that involves cutting and realigning the bones in the knee joint to relieve pain and improve function. Such an operation isn't exclusive to the knees, as doctors also osteotomize other bones in the body, such as the femur.

Depending on your case, you might be a candidate for any of these treatments. You must talk to your doctor to see the best option for you or know if a combination of treatments is necessary.

How Do You Manage Knee Arthritis Pain?

You can do some things to help manage your knee arthritis pain. Some people find relief with over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Others might need to use prescription medications.

Several lifestyle changes also help manage pain. CDC's Arthritis Program put together five self-management strategies for people with arthritis:

  1. Protect Your Joints. Use good body mechanics and joint protection techniques to minimize stress on your joints. If you're active, avoid high-impact activities (i.e., running) and opt for low-impact activities like swimming or water aerobics. Also, wear joint protection, such as knee pads, when participating in activities that stress your joints.
  2. Be Active. Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your joints. It helps to strengthen the muscles around them, increase your range of motion, and reduce pain. A combination of aerobic activity and strength training is ideal. Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program, especially if you've been inactive.
  3. Manage Your Weight. Lose these extra pounds. Excess weight adds stress to your joints, but losing just a few pounds makes a big difference in the pain you experience.
  4. Master Management Techniques. Learn how to manage your pain with heat and cold therapies, relaxation techniques, and other coping strategies.
  5. Talk to Your Doctor. Don't suffer in silence. Talk to your doctor about your pain and the treatments that are available to you.


Arthritis knee pain is a common condition that causes significant pain and disability. While there is no cure for arthritis, treatments available can help relieve symptoms and improve quality of life. If you are experiencing knee pain, talk to your doctor about the best treatment options for you.

If you live in the Idaho Falls and Pocatello area, make an appointment with Dr. Altenburg today. Dr. Altenburg is a board-certified and fellowship-trained orthopedic surgeon specializing in joint replacement surgery, including knee replacement. With over 600 annual knee operations, he has the knowledge and expertise to help you get back to your everyday activities. Schedule an appointment online or call us at (208) 233-8344.