Harvard Health Letter

Alternative treatments for knee pain

Are these popular therapies effective or just snake oil?

You might be tempted to try just about anything to relieve the pain and stiffness from your arthritic knees. And while your doctor will likely support other treatments before recommending a knee replacement, not all therapies are proven effective, and the hype on some seems too good to be true. So what's the best approach? "Arm yourself with information," says Dr. Eric Berkson, director of the Sports Performance Center at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Doctors first recommend cortisone shots and pain relievers such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. But physical therapy and weight loss are the most effective, says Dr. Berkson. "Strengthening all of your muscles will mean you have less force on your knee during an activity. It's been shown to have an excellent effect on knee pain and future pain, and may be one of the best things for it. Losing weight makes a significant difference, too, since the force you place on your knee can be up to six times your body weight. So losing five pounds can result in taking off 30 pounds of pressure with every step." He recommends finding a physical therapist who's experienced in your particular diagnosis and won't overwork your knee.

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