Knee Arthritis: How Physical Therapy Helps

Knee arthritis is a condition where the protective cartilage of your joints breaks down.  The cartilage serves as a pad or cushion to the bone beneath it.  Your knee, hip, and spine are the most common joints where osteoarthritis develops.  In your knee, this can occur on the end of your thigh bone, lower leg bone, or both. When your cartilage wears away, your body responds by laying down more bone.  This results in spurs and narrowing of your joints.

Stages of Knee Arthritis

knee arthritis

Knee arthritis is not a death sentence.  “Severe” arthritis viewed on x-rays may result in only mild pain.  Likewise, “mild” arthritis may result in higher levels of pain.  The experience of pain is complex.  Joint inflammation, stiffness, muscle weakness, tightness, and changes within your nervous system all contribute to the pain you experience.

Symptoms of Knee Arthritis

Knee arthritis typically affects people over 50 years of age.  Although it can be present in younger people.  It is more common in females.  Common symptoms include stiffness early in the morning or when initiating walking after prolonged sitting.  Pain, stiffness, weakness, and cracking or popping sounds are hallmark signs.  The pain is generally worse with weight-bearing activities (e.g., walking, standing, or twisting).  It is common to experience “flare-ups” of increased pain and stiffness interspersed with periods of little or no pain.

Proven Help for Knee Arthritis

Recent research shows several types of exercise are effective for improving pain and function in people with knee arthritis.  This includes aerobic exercise, strengthening exercise, and stretching.

Aerobic Exercise 

knee arthritis

Strong research supports aerobic exercise for people with knee arthritis. We recommend regular walking for 30 minutes 5 days per week.  It is best to do continuous walking.  However, if you are unable to perform one 30-minute walk, multiple shorter walks totaling 30 minutes is fine.  Your physical therapist will help you begin and progress an individualized walking program.  Feel free to also incorporate cycling, swimming, and other forms of aerobic exercise.  However, walking programs show the greatest improvements.

Strength Training 

An individualized muscle strengthening program is prescribed for patients with knee arthritis.  The quadriceps and hip muscles are targeted.  These muscles are important for walking, climbing stairs, and transferring from sitting to standing.  Weakness of your quadriceps muscle on the front of your thigh is common in people with knee arthritis.  Strengthening both the quadriceps and hip muscles is proven to produce the greatest improvements in walking ability.   Sit-to-stand training is an excellent way to incorporate both of these muscle groups.

Stretching Exercises 

Knee arthritis leads to stiffness in your joint capsule and ligaments.  The surrounding muscles shorten further limiting your range of motion.  Stretching exercises to improve knee straightening (extension) is important to restore a normal walking pattern.  Manual therapy performed by your physical therapist greatly helps people with longstanding stiffness.  Manual therapy is incorporated at your knee, hip, ankle, or spinal joints.  This is because problems at your knee are often associated with problems at your neighboring joints.

Start Your Exercise Program Today

Knee arthritis does not have to be a disabling condition.  Exercise is very effective for improving your pain, function, and quality of life.  Many people are unsure how to start and what type of exercise is best for their goals.  Meet with your physical therapist to develop an individualized exercise program that meets your needs.  Call one of our offices to schedule your initial evaluation today.


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