If you experience soreness and discomfort in your knees, you’re not alone. Annually, about 18 million people visit a health care provider to treat their knee pain. It can hamper daily activities like exercise, climbing stairs, and household chores. For many, this pain stems from osteoarthritis, a chronic, degenerative condition that causes joint inflammation due to the gradual breakdown of knee cartilage. It’s the most common form of arthritis, and is said to impact about 30% of the population.
You should seek medical attention if you are experiencing severe pain or worsening symptoms. For those with mild or moderate knee pain, there are many natural remedies that you can turn to at home for relief, from topical treatments to lifestyle changes.
You may have just come home from a long run and find that your knees are in some mild discomfort, but want to avoid taking an oral medication to relieve your pain. Several accessible topical treatments out there can help.
Capsaicin Creams and Rubs
Capsaicin is the active ingredient in chili peppers that, when used in the form of ointments, lotions, and transdermal skin patches, can relieve pain. Capsaicin is the cause of the burning feeling you associate with chili peppers, and some research suggests that it depletes nerve cells of the chemicals that shoot pain messages to your brain.
A 2014 report found consistent evidence that capsaicin treatments are effective for osteoarthritis pain relief. Capsaicin products only offer temporary relief, however. Some doctors recommend that it be applied multiple times per day. You should also test it out first on a small patch of skin to make sure you don’t have an allergic reaction. Also, avoid applying capsaicin products on broken skin or open wounds.
Essential oils refer to concentrated plant extracts that are distilled into oils, popularly used in modern alternative medicine, but that have been part of medicinal treatments for centuries. Essential oils are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so anyone who uses them should proceed with caution. These oils are a key component of aromatherapy, in which the scents from these plant products have been shown to release signals to the brain to relieve pain, particularly when it comes to arthritis.
A 2016 study examined how this kind of essential oil-based aromatherapy could impact pain from osteoarthritis of the knee. In one study, 90 people were randomly split into three groups: those who received an aromatherapy massage with lavender essential oil, a placebo group who received a massage with almond oil, and a control group without a massage. This essential oil therapy significantly reduced pain in people with knee osteoarthritis compared with the other two groups.
Arnica is a popular example of an essential oil that has been used for pain relief. It’s a plant found in both North America and Europe, and oils derived from it have been suggested to ease osteoarthritis pain.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain drugs (NSAIDs) are common pain medications used to treat conditions like tendonitis and arthritis, among others. They are available over the counter such as Ibuprofen or as a prescription. Topical NSAIDs have been given for joint pain relief. Diclofenac products have been approved in the United States since 2007, and are available in the form of liquids, patches, and gels. They are commonly prescribed for osteoarthritis knee pain.
Natural supplements are another common way to alleviate the discomfort from knee pain.
Turmeric is a spice that has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine. While not much research is out there on its effectiveness in pain relief, one analysis showed it improved symptoms of osteoarthritis, but the authors pointed out that “more rigorous and larger studies are needed to confirm the therapeutic efficacy of turmeric for arthritis.”
Ginger has been shown to treat osteoarthritis and could potentially be a substitute for NSAIDs. In one study of 247 participants, knee pain was considerably reduced among 63% of those who were given therapeutic ginger products compared with 50% of those in the placebo group.
One 2018 review found that vitamin E supplements may be helpful for knee pain due to its antioxidant qualities.The authors concluded that “vitamin E may retard the progression of osteoarthritis by ameliorating oxidative stress and inflammation of the joint.” However, they also cited that further studies are warranted.
Research has been mixed on the pain-relieving effects of glucosamine and chondroitin supplements. One 2016 study of glucosamine and chondroitin looked at 164 people with knee pain from osteoarthritis. It actually stopped early because those on the supplement had worse symptoms than those who took the placebo version of the supplement. Be sure to consult your provider first before using this supplement to manage your osteoarthritis symptoms.
Some research has shown that this common pain reliever may be helpful for knee pain. A study of 50 men and women from 40 to 76 years old showed that a 3 g twice-a-day dose of methylsulfonylmethane improved pain and physical knee function. The researchers said more studies on the supplement needs to be done.
Check In With Your Pharmacist
As with any medication regimen, make sure to discuss with your provider any other drugs you might be on as you discuss treatments for your knee pain. Make sure you consult your pharmacist about any potential interactions a new supplement may have with other medications and herbal products you are currently taking.
Beyond supplements and topical treatments, a range of therapies can help relieve your chronic knee pain:
- Ice or heat: Ice and heat therapies can help with joint pain from arthritis. Rheumatologists say heat compresses or patches generally work best for relieving knee pain from osteoarthritis, but some people find that cold helps dull their pain better.
- Massage: Massage therapy is a common alternative for knee pain relief. While there are many types of this therapy, a simple self-massage, kneading your sore joints with your knuckles, hands, or massage tools, can help relieve knee pain.
- Physical therapy: A physical therapist can help you understand how your knees work, where the pain is located, and may use manual therapy and massage, ultrasounds to treat spasms, and electrical stimulation.
Some interventions for knee pain include simple alterations to your lifestyle and habits, including:
- Diet: A well-rounded diet that is rich in plant-based foods, fish, whole grains, nuts, and beans can help manage arthritis symptoms and pain. The Mediterranean diet, fish oils, green tea, and spices and herbs have been found to quiet down inflammation and morning stiffness in the joints.
- Exercise: A 2013 review shows therapeutic exercise such as aerobic workouts, strength training, swimming, among others, have been proven to relieve inflammation, strengthen joints and strengthen your knees.
- Tai chi: This mind-body practice incorporates a series of slow-moving exercises, meditation, and rhythmic breathing. It has been shown to help with knee pain and arthritis. Government-funded research has shown the practice reduces pain and improves knee function for people with knee osteoarthritis.
- Listening to music: The simple act of listening to music can be psychologically and physically therapeutic. Music therapy can be paired with physical therapy techniques. It can also help ease pain and stress.
- Reduce stress: Finding ways to alleviate mental stress can relieve physical pain. This could be achieved with exercise, listening to music, and practicing meditation. Stress affects the part of the brain sending nerve signals throughout your body, including your knees.
A Word From Verywell
Pain that affects our knees can hamper how we go about our lives. Given that it can impact everything from your ability to take a walk outside to enjoying yourself on a vacation, it’s important to treat knee pain when you notice it, especially if it’s due to osteoarthritis. As with any health condition, consult your doctor about the best ways to treat your pain. Before using any over-the-counter or prescription pain relief medication or supplement, consult your medical team about whether that treatment is right for you.