Knees are not easy-going joints, which explains why sore knees are so common. “Complicated and relatively unstable, they depend on muscles and ligaments,” says Doreen M. Stiskal, chair and associate professor, Department of Physical Therapy at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. “And when you play sports and do heavier activities of daily living [like lifting], you can strain the muscles or connective joint tissues.”
Swollen or torn ligaments, cartilage tears, bursitis (inflammation of the bursa, or sacs that act as cushions between bones, muscles and tendons at the joint), or tendonitis (inflammation of the tendons) can all crop up from overuse, or sudden twists and turns. Arthritis too can stiffen and inflame joints, making even short walks painful.
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But sore knees aren’t a necessary part of life. Try the following remedies to put your knees back in business.
- Ice. Hold an ice pack on your sore knees for up to 15 minutes at a time, suggests Stiskal: “Ice controls inflammation.” It also lessens swelling and numbs pain.
- Heat. A warm shower or heating pad is particularly good to use before moving or exercise, says Stiskal. Place the heating pad on the sore spot for 15 minutes at a time. Heat relaxes the muscles and increases healing blood flow to the painful area.
- Over-the-counter remedies. Pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) can help ease knee pain, says Dr. Jennifer Baima, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School and staff physiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass. You can also try pain-killing creams like Ben Gay or Icy Hot, says Stiskal. But don’t use both oral and topical pain relievers: because they contain similar ingredients, you may overdose, says Baima.
- Taping or support. “Wraps and neoprene [a synthetic rubber] supports help control swelling,” says Stiskal. Both are available in drugstores or online. If you have pain at the front of your knee (patellofemoral pain syndrome, which can be caused by overuse and a wearing down of the cartilage), ask your doctor or physical therapist to tape your knee cap in place, says Baima. That may ease the pain.
- Cushioning. “Both hip and knee pain can come from standing on hard surfaces,” says Stiskal. “Wear good sneakers that are well cushioned if you have to stand on a hard floor.” If you have knee arthritis, using knee pads for gardening and other kneeling tasks may lessen pain, say Stiskal. And get well-padded mats to stand on in the kitchen. You can find knee pads and padded mats (or anti-fatigue mats) online or at big box stores.
- Exercise. Baima recommends the following: Lying down, lift one leg up toward the ceiling. Repeat with the other leg, completing three sets. Or sit in a high back chair, straightening one leg, then the other. Add ankle weights to increase the effort.
If you can’t do knee exercises, hip exercises can also help. Try this one: Loop an elastic band around the leg of a heavy piece of furniture, looping the other end around your left ankle, with your right hip closest to the table. Lift the left leg up and away from the table leg. “Even though this exercise works on hip muscles, it decreases knee pain,” says Baima.
Even if you’re not exercising, get up and move around at least every hour, says Stiskal: “Your joints depend on movement to get nutrition. Bend and straighten your legs often.”