Osteoarthritis of the Knee

Health Information

Meniscus Tear

UW Health's Sports Medicine doctors in Madison, Wisconsin, treat a wide range of common athletic injuries, including osteoarthritis of the knee.


What is osteoarthritis?


Osteoarthritis of the knee results from a progressive breakdown (“wear and tear”) of the articular cartilage on the end of the femur (thigh bone) and the tibia (larger leg bone below the knee) or the patella (knee-cap). Gradual loss of this cartilage increases the joint friction, and in extreme cases allows bone to rub against bone. In both cases, pain, swelling and stiffness are common. Osteoarthritis of the knee is often associated with overuse, previous injury, surgery, family history or poor alignment.


Signs and Symptoms


The pain and stiffness associated with osteoarthritis is often the most intense first thing in the morning or after a period of inactivity (such as sitting for a long car or plane ride or a movie). The swelling associated with osteoarthritis is often worse after a period of increased activity. Osteoarthritis can lead to weakness in the leg muscles due to compensations for the pain. There is no cure or current technique to reverse osteoarthritis of the knee.


Management Techniques

  • Balance rest with activity. Doing too much activity or no activity at all will often make symptoms worse.
  • Find a level of activity/exercise that does not increase pain, swelling or stiffness.
  • Exercise programs should focus on maximizing the following: range of motion of the knee; the flexibility of muscles surrounding the joint, including the hamstrings, quadriceps, iliotibial (IT) Band and calf muscles; and the strength of the core and lower extremity muscles to help support the arthritic knee.
  • An aquatic exercise program is often beneficial by allowing a person to exercise with less pain since the buoyancy of the water decreases the weight bearing stress on the arthritic knee. Oftentimes, water-based exercise may allow a person to exercise more aggressively than what is possible outside of the pool. An aquatic exercise program often includes functional activities such as stair climbing in addition to activities that optimize range of motion, strength and flexibility.

Other Treatment Options

  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Glucosamine – an over-the-counter supplement which may promote cartilage health
  • Orthotics to correct poor alignment
  • A brace to unload the area of the knee affected by osteoarthritis 
  • Weight management to minimize added stresses to the knee
  • Hyaluronic Acid injections such as Synvisc or Orthovisc
  • Corticosteroid injections
  • Total and partial knee replacement surgery is often reserved for those who have failed other treatment options