Medical Treatment for Osteoarthritis of the Knee

Many people with mild or moderate osteoarthritis of the knee find that a combination of medication and physical therapy can relieve pain and stiffness and improve mobility. At NYU Langone, a team of experts in orthopaedics, rheumatology, and rehabilitation at the Joint Preservation and Arthritis Center creates a treatment plan designed to relieve your symptoms without surgery if possible.

Our specialists collaborate with you in all aspects of this decision-making process to ensure that treatment fits your lifestyle and helps you reach your goals.

Pain Relief Medication

If osteoarthritis of the knee causes aching pain and limits your ability to move without discomfort, your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter pain relief medication. Many doctors recommend acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. These medications are taken by mouth and are available at drugstores.

Acetaminophen blocks pain signals that travel from the site of an inflamed joint to the brain, and NSAIDs relieve pain and swelling that result as the body’s immune system responds to joint damage caused by arthritis. Many people find that these medications alleviate aching and stiffness, making movement easier and helping them remain active.

Acetaminophen is safe in moderate doses, but it has been linked with liver damage with long-term use at high doses. NSAIDs may also cause side effects such as high blood pressure, headaches, upset stomach that sometimes leads to stomach ulcers, and kidney disease. Your doctor can explain the risks and recommend a safe regimen for you based on your symptoms, age, and other medical conditions that could affect or interact with these medications.

If over-the-counter medications don’t work to relieve pain and stiffness from osteoarthritis within a number of weeks, your doctor may prescribe a stronger pain relief medication. If you can’t tolerate prescription medications because of side effects such as nausea or sleep disorders, your doctor may prescribe a topical anti-inflammatory medication to put on the skin for relief.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee is designed to strengthen your hamstrings and quadriceps, the powerful muscles in the front and back of your thighs. Therapy improves muscle tone and flexibility, which also enhances range of motion. Strengthening the muscles provides increased support for the knee joint, as though you’re building an internal brace for your knee.

At NYU Langone’s Rusk Rehabilitation, physical therapists and physiatrists, doctors who specialize in rehabilitation, customize a routine of stretches and exercises that you can incorporate into a workout you do at home or at the gym. For example, simple leg raises help build muscle without putting strain on your knee.

Our therapists may also suggest limiting certain activities that are especially painful. Running and playing tennis put stress on the knee joints, for instance, and continuing these activities may cause further joint damage and increased pain. Doctors often recommend low-impact exercises, such as swimming or cycling, as a cardiovascular workout for people with knee pain.

Weight Loss

As one of the strongest and most important joints, the knee helps bear the weight of the body and keep you balanced during movement. Being severely overweight or obese puts more stress on the knees, increasing the risk of knee injury or of osteoarthritis of the knee. Obesity also increases the risk of complications or failure after total joint replacement surgery.

Our doctors understand that losing weight is difficult, and specialists at NYU Langone’s Weight Management Program can help you make positive changes for the long term.


In addition to physical therapy and treatment to relieve pain, a doctor may recommend acupuncture. Acupuncture is a therapeutic technique in which doctors insert very thin needles into various points on the surface of the body. Acupuncture may stimulate healing by increasing blood flow, reducing inflammation, and stimulating the immune system. It has also been shown to improve joint function and may prompt the body to release endorphins, which are natural pain relievers.

Our licensed acupuncturists are physicians who administer therapy in a relaxing setting at NYU Langone. Acupuncture needles are left in place for 20 to 40 minutes. For optimal results, doctors usually recommend 6 to 10 acupuncture sessions.

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