Arthritis is a condition that causes pain, stiffness and swelling in the joints. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and it commonly affects the knees.
Causes of Knee Arthritis
Arthritis of the knee may develop as the cartilage protecting the bones of the knee joint wears down over time. Over the years, as stress is put on the joints, cartilage wears thin and sometimes even erodes completely, resulting in stiffness and pain. Arthritis of the knee occurs more frequently in older individuals, however it sometimes develops in athletes from overuse of the knee joint or after an injury.
Symptoms of Knee Arthritis
Symptoms of arthritis of the knee may include pain, swelling and stiffness within the joint. Some individuals also experience a feeling of weakness in the knee that results in the knee locking or buckling. These symptoms tend to worsen after increased physical activity and as the condition progresses. Over time, as arthritis of the knee progresses, the knee joint becomes increasingly stiff and inflamed, difficult to move, and very painful, even when at rest.
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How is Knee Arthritis Diagnosed?
To diagnose arthritis of the knee, a doctor will review all symptoms and perform a physical examination. X-rays and other imaging tests are often used to assess the amount of damage to the joint.
Knee Arthritis Treatment
Treatment for arthritis of the knee initially focuses on relieving pain and addressing symptoms and is commonly treated with a combination of methods. Avoiding certain physical activities that place stress on the knee may be helpful. Medication may also be used to treat pain and may include:
- Anti-inflammatory medication such as aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen
- Prescription pain relievers
- Corticosteroid injections
Physical therapy may be a successful form of treatment for some patients. Severe cases of osteoarthritis of the knee may require surgery to reposition the bones or replace the joint.
I have arthritis in one knee. Will the other be affected, too?
If you're noticing stiffness and pain in one knee, you may worry that, at some point, your other knee will develop the same symptoms. Arthritis doesn't work that way. You may develop arthritis in only one knee. The development of joint degradation in the opposite leg can be avoided by acting quickly on arthritis you have already developed. Talk to your doctor about the various conservative ways that you can slow down the breakdown of cartilage in your joints and how you can take optimal care of both of your knees at once.
Why is my leg bowing?
Sometimes, when knee arthritis becomes severe, it can cause a deformity in the leg. Some people start to look bow-legged while others develop a knock-kneed condition in which the leg bends inward at the knee. This happens because of the wear pattern of the cartilage in the knee: more wear at the inside aspect of the joint and the leg leans inward; more wear at the outside aspect and the leg may lean outward at the knee. If your leg has one of these two deformities, you can benefit from seeing a doctor sooner rather than later. Continuing to walk on severely arthritic knees could change your gait to the point of affecting other joints, including your hips.
My knees make crackling sounds. Why is that?
All joints in the body are buffered with smooth cartilage that slide along each other as the joint moves. Arthritis is the condition in which cartilage becomes worn. The crackling that you hear occurs when rough surfaces rug against one another and there is less smooth glide happening inside the joint. This is a common sign of osteoarthritis.
Does knee arthritis require surgery?
Having knee arthritis doesn't mean you'll need surgery. You may find sufficient relief and management through a few lifestyle changes and conservative clinical intervention, including physical therapy, injections, or biologic treatments.
You might consider knee surgery if your arthritis has become so severe that it keeps you up at night or prevents you from living the active life that you want. If swelling, inflammation, and comfort don't improve with medication and rest, or if your leg has become deformed due to excessive joint wear, you may be a great candidate for knee surgery.
Knee arthritis is typically handled in one of two ways:
- Arthroscopic surgery. This minimally invasive procedure views the knee joint using an arthroscope. The narrow tube with a camera on the end is inserted through a tiny incision. Viewing the joint on a monitor, the doctor can use tiny instruments inserted through another small incision to remove damaged cartilage and flush the joint of debris that may be contributing to pain.
- Knee replacement. If all other treatment options have failed to achieve a satisfactory level of relief, you may be a good candidate for knee replacement surgery. In this procedure, the doctor replaces all worn parts of the knee, including cartilage and parts of the joint, with artificial devices made of plastic and metal. The relieving results of knee replacement can last indefinitely. If you are a candidate for knee replacement, your doctor will discuss their expected outcome, downtime, and all other important aspects of the treatment.