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Physical Therapy for Knee Arthritis – Information, Exercises, and More

Knee stiffness, pain, and swelling. You’ve been dealing with the symptoms for far too long and you’ve had enough. You want to get back to doing everyday activities without the pain. 

Now, you’re curious about the cause and how to make the constant discomfort fade, but without a proper diagnosis, it may be hard to find relief.  

We understand and are here to help.

In this guide, we’re discussing everything you need to know about knee arthritis, from types and symptoms to treatment and everything in between. Keep reading to learn more.

What is Knee Arthritis?

The knee is the strongest and largest joint in the human body. It’s a hinge joint made up of bones, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons. 

The knee joint connects three bones in your leg: 

  1. The femur—your upper leg bone  
  2. The tibia—the front of your shin bone  
  3. The patella—your knee cap 

In order to really understand what knee arthritis is, you need to understand the other components of your knee.

  • These three bones are covered by articular cartilage, a slippery substance that helps your knee bones glide smoothly across each other when you straighten or bend your leg. 

Between your femur and your tibia, is a cartilage called your meniscus. This cartilage acts as a “shock absorber.” It is tough and rubbery and helps cushion and stabilize your knee joint. 

  • Ligaments connect the bones of your knee together.

Think of these ligaments as strong ropes or chains that hold the bones of your knee together. 

  • The muscles of your knee are held together by tendons. Your quadriceps tendons are what connect the muscles of the front of your thigh to your patella. 

So, how does arthritis affect all of these different components of your knee? 

That depends on the type of arthritis you are diagnosed with

Knee arthritis comes in many different forms, over 100 different forms in fact, and although some of the symptoms are the same, each type affects your knees a bit differently.

What Causes Knee Arthritis?

The most common types of arthritis of the knee are: 

  1. Osteoarthritis—a degenerative disease
  2. Rheumatoid arthritis—an autoimmune disorder

Other less common types of arthritis that affect the knee include:

  • Post-traumatic arthritis, 
  • Reactive arthritis, 
  • Gout, and 
  • Infectious arthritis. 

Causes, symptoms, and treatment options vary based on the form of arthritis you’ve been diagnosed with.

We’ll be covering the most common causes of arthritis in the following sections. 

Osteoarthritis in the Knee

Osteoarthritis (OA), or degenerative knee arthritis, is the most common type of knee arthritis. OA affects the bones, cartilage, and synovium. Your synovium is a lining that produces synovial fluid that lubricates and supplies oxygen to the cartilage of the knee joint.

OA of the knee is caused by the breakdown or damage of joint cartilage between the knee bones. When the cartilage in a joint starts to break down, it changes the bone beneath it. The changes develop slowly, over a period of years, and get worse over time.  

Some of the top reasons that osteoarthritis in the knee occurs are: 

  • Ageas you age, your bodies ability to heal it’s cartilage decreases
  • Genderwomen 55 and older are more at risk to develop OA than men
  • Repetitive stress injuries to the kneesrepetitive activities that involve lifting, squatting, kneeling, etc. put stress and pressure on your knee joint
  • Sportsathletes involved in sports like soccer, tennis, or long-distance running

Rheumatoid Arthritis in the Knee

Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can affect multiple joints in your body, including your knees. 

RA is an autoimmune and inflammatory disorder where the body attacks itself, specifically attracting the joint cell lining and capsular tissues that surround your joints. 

If you have rheumatoid arthritis in your knees, your immune system attacks the synovial membrane that lines your knee joint. 

When this membrane is attacked, it begins to swell, causing inflammation and pain. 

As the swelling continues, it can damage the cartilage and ligaments of your knee joints causing them to grind against each other. This can lead to bones wearing down or breaking more easily. 

Unfortunately, RA gets worse over time.

Knee Arthritis Symptoms

Whether you have OA or RA, some of the most common knee arthritis symptoms include:

  • Stiffness
  • Pain
  • Loss of function/joint movement
  • Swelling

In the following sections, we’ll look at the different symptoms that display with specific types of arthritis in the knee.

Symptoms of Osteoarthritis in the Knee

  • A scraping feeling when you move your knee
  • Pain/aching during or after activity 
  • Joint stiffness first thing in the morning or after resting 
  • Limited range of motion
  • Clicking or cracking when you bend the joint
  • Muscle weakness around your knee

Instability or buckling—your knee giving out

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis in the Knee

As mentioned earlier, people who experience RA in the knees often experience the following symptoms in both knees: 

  • Stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Weakness

But knee arthritis symptoms for those suffering from RA also include: 

  • Knee joints feeling warm to the touch
  • Difficulty walking, climbing stairs, etc. 
  • Fatigue after everyday activities

Knee Arthritis Treatment

General treatment options for arthritis in the knee include…

  • Medications
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Surgery 

… but just like knee arthritis symptoms, knee arthritis treatment is dependent upon the type of arthritis you are diagnosed with. 

Treatment of Osteoarthritis in the Knee

Osteoarthritis is irreversible, but treatment is available to reduce the pain and make movement a little easier. 

Treatment options may involve:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) 
  • Weight Loss
  • Exercise
  • Corticosteroid injections
  • Acupuncture
  • Physical/occupational therapy 
  • Surgery—an osteotomy where the bones of the knee are realigned in order to relieve pressure on the joints or  joint replacement may be necessary 

Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis in the Knee

Unfortunately, similarly to OA, RA cannot be cured or reversed, but there are ways you can manage the symptoms. Some of the most common treatments for RA include: 

  • Medications such as:
    • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARS)
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
    • Steroids
    • Biological response modifiers
  • Therapy for knee arthritisthis may involve physical or occupational therapy
    • Surgeryremoval of any inflamed synovial lining, repairing tendons, a joint fusion, or a total joint replacement may be necessary to relieve symptoms of RA in the knee. 
  • Braces/Splints to protect the joints involved


Knee Arthritis Physical Therapy – Will PT Help?

Living with arthritis in the knees is discouraging. Your doctor has suggested therapy and you’re curious —- can physical therapy help with arthritic knees? 

While arthritis cannot be reversed, physical therapy can help relieve the symptoms by providing you with guidance and support, and teaching you different physical therapy exercises for knee arthritis. 

A physical therapist will analyze the affected joints, assess your joints’ levels of… 

  • Inflammation 
  • Flexibility 
  • Gait—the way you walk 
  • Strength
  • Balance
  • Etc. 

and proceed to help you come up with a treatment plan. 

Treatments your physical therapist may recommend include:


  • Manual therapy 
  • Electrical stimulation
  • Cold/ice therapy
  • Lifestyle changes

Physical therapy for knee arthritis will depend greatly on your unique situation and symptoms.

Best Knee Arthritis Exercises

Studies show that moderate exercise of those diagnosed with knee arthritis improves patients’ physical function, strength, and flexibility, as well as reducing pain and discomfort. 

Simple physical therapy exercises for knee arthritis help strengthen the muscles around your joints. Your physical therapist may recommend several different exercises to improve your symptoms of knee arthritis. 

Some common exercises your physical therapist may assist you with include: 

  • Hamstring stretches—these stretches help relieve stiffness and loosen the knee joints while strengthening your hamstrings — one of the muscles that run along the back of your thigh and connects to your knee. 
  • Pillow squeezes—your physical therapist may recommend pillow squeezes to help strengthen the muscles inside of your legs that help support your knees. 
  • Knee raises—knee raises help increase your range of motion and strengthen the back of your thighs and buttocks, providing more support and lessening the stress on your knee joints.

Your physical therapist will assist you with any exercises that may improve your knee arthritis symptoms and ensure that you are using the proper form to prevent any further injuries.

How In Motion O.C. Can Help With Knee Arthritis

If you are suffering from knee arthritis, you are not alone. 


As the #1 rated physical therapy clinic on Yelp! and Google, In Motion O.C. has helped many patients suffering from knee arthritis symptoms. 


Don’t let your knee arthritis stop you from enjoying everyday activities any longer. In Motion O.C. is here to help you manage your symptoms and get you back to living your way. 

*This information about physical therapy for knee arthritis was reviewed by Dr Natalie Thomas, PT, DPT. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us here.

In Motion O.C.