Physical Therapy for Knee Osteoarthritis

Strengthening Exercises and Other Osteoarthritis Treatments

It's usually not the first thing people think about when it comes to treating knee osteoarthritis, but physical therapy can be your first line of defense for managing knee OA symptoms.

Having knee osteoarthritis can sometimes seem like a double-edge sword. Overusing your knees can worsen your joint health and knee OA, but the less you move your knees, the weaker they can get. You need to find that balance of keeping your knee joints moving just enough so they're strong and healthy, and physical therapy helps you do that.

With knee OA, the muscles surrounding the knee can become weak, and the knee joints can become stiff. This makes it difficult to do everyday tasks, such as walking or getting out of bed.

Physical therapy can help to reduce the pain, swelling, and stiffness of knee osteoarthritis, and it can help improve knee joint function. It can also make it easier for you to walk, bend, kneel, squat, and sit. In fact, a 2000 study found that a combination of manual physical therapy and supervised exercise has functional benefits for patients with knee osteoarthritis and may delay or prevent the need for surgery.1

Physical Therapy for Knee Osteoarthritis
The 2 main types of physical therapy—passive and active treatments—can help make your knee OA more manageable. With passive treatments, the physical therapist does the majority of the work (eg, hands-on therapy). But with active treatments, you do more of the work, such as at-home exercises.

Common Passive Treatments for Knee Osteoarthritis

  • Cold therapy: By reducing circulation, cold therapy can help decrease swelling. For example, your physical therapist may place a cold compress on your knee joint.
  • Heat therapy: Heat therapy increases blood flow to decrease stiffness in the knee joints and muscles surrounding the knee. For example, the physical therapist can place a warm heating pad on your knee joint to promote circulation.
  • Hydrotherapy: Also sometimes referred to as aquatic therapy, this treatment uses water to decrease your knee osteoarthritis symptoms. There are several advantages of hydrotherapy. For example, you can do gentle exercises in the water (which won't aggravate your joints). Also, just being in warm water can help facilitate motion as well as help you deal with pain and other knee OA symptoms.

Common Active Treatments for Knee Osteoarthritis

  • Strengthening exercises: Your physical therapist will show you certain exercises that you can do at home to strengthen your muscles. Working out muscles in the leg can help make your knee joints stronger. Strengthening these muscles alone can help decrease the pain of knee OA.
  • Flexibility exercises: Because knee OA often makes it hard to move, flexibility exercises are very important. Doing them regularly can help increase range of motion, make your knees more flexible, and restore normal knee joint function.

Both strengthening and flexibility exercises are important to do because they can help take strain off the knee. Learn more about exercise for knee osteoarthritis in our article about exercising to manage knee osteoarthritis.

Your physical therapist will create a physical therapy plan for you—one that may incorporate a combination of passive and active treatments for knee osteoarthritis.

Talk to your doctor about beginning a physical therapy program to treat your knee osteoarthritis so you can increase your daily activities. The earlier you treat knee OA, the better off you'll be in the long run.

Updated on: 10/11/11
Continue Reading: Knee Osteoarthritis Surgery