Keep moving when knee or hip pain strikes

Mobility relies on the body's two largest joints, the hips and knees. We ask a lot of both these joints: they must bear our full weight and coordinate movement over a lifetime of standing, walking, running, dancing, and sports. Not surprisingly, hip and knee pain are common complaints, and nearly everyone who lives into old age can expect some trouble with these joints. But taking care of your hips and knees and managing any pain that arises will help you avoid losing mobility as you age.

Try these self-help measures when knee or hip pain strikes:

RICE for acute pain or injuries. RICE, which stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation, is excellent first aid for any type of joint injury.

  • Rest. Don't completely limit your activity — that can make injuries worse. Instead, avoid the type of motion that directly led to the injury, and try activities that keep pressure off the joint (see the list below for some ideas).
  • Ice. A homemade or store-bought ice pack applied to the injured area can reduce pain and swelling. Use it for 20 minutes at a time, with 20-minute pauses in between. Make sure a layer of cloth or other material is between the ice and your skin to protect you from frostbite.
  • Compression. A neoprene support or elastic bandage can promote recovery and reduce swelling. Make sure the wrap isn't so tight that the skin becomes cool or blue.
  • Elevation. Raising an injured leg on a pillow or stool can also reduce swelling by preventing blood from pooling at the injured site.

Heat therapy for long-term pain and stiffness. Ice is the best therapy in the first day or two after an injury to reduce swelling; after that, applying heat can also help ease pain by relieving stiffness and promoting flexibility. You can use a store-bought heating pad or heat a damp towel in the microwave at 20-second increments until it reaches the desired temperature. Make sure the heat you're applying feels warm, not hot, to avoid burning the skin.

It's important to keep joints moving, even when you're dealing with pain from arthritis or an overuse injury. These joint-friendly options can help keep you active:

  • elliptical trainer
  • stationary bike (recumbent or upright)
  • tai chi
  • swimming, water aerobics, or water walking
  • rowing machine
  • short walks throughout the day, instead of a long walk.

For more on how to preserve your mobility so you can stay active, buy Mobility and Independence, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.