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If you’ve ever had a stiff or painful knee, you know how much it can interfere with doing the activities you love.

Everyday tasks, such as walking up and down the stairs, getting out of the car or going for a walk, can suddenly become very challenging. Often, knee pain and stiffness can come and go, seemingly without any specific injury. It can also vary day to day in intensity. Sound familiar?

One of the most common reasons for this kind of knee pain is osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is a form of arthritis that involves a thinning of the cartilage (lining) on the ends of the bones in a joint. It can develop for a number of reasons, including family history, past injury and inadequate muscle strength.

Early in the disease, a knee with osteoarthritis often has fluctuating pain, swelling and stiffness. Sometimes, it can even be noisy with cracks and crackles as you go up and down stairs or squat down. Over time, the knee typically feels less stable, can cause you to limp and the pain may be more consistent, especially at night.

The great news is there has been an abundance of research done evaluating which treatments are most helpful. The results overwhelmingly support the effectiveness of education, exercise and weight management for anyone with knee osteoarthritis.

Unfortunately, a lot of the early signs of knee osteoarthritis are ignored because the severity is low and symptoms seem to come and go. However, many people with intermittent knee pain naturally start to limit their physical activities due to the pain. As a result, a painful knee can start to have other negative health consequences, such as weight gain, increased blood pressure and decreased mental health.

To limit the likelihood of ending up in this downward spiral of knee pain, reduced activity and high risk of health complications, the best time to start managing osteoarthritis is as early as possible in the disease process. This means getting a diagnosis early is key to successful management of your knee.

Getting a diagnosis of knee osteoarthritis does not require an x-ray. A healthcare provider (ie: physiotherapist) can determine if you have osteoarthritis based on an assessment of your risk factors, symptoms and a physical examination. If you do have osteoarthritis in the knee, the sooner you can understand how to manage it, the more likely you will be able to limit its impact on your quality of life.

The ironic thing about knee osteoarthritis is that the best way to maximize comfort is to keep the remaining cartilage as healthy as possible by using it. Of course, how you use it matters and that part varies individually. An assessment with a physiotherapist is a great place to start to find out if your symptoms are consistent with knee osteoarthritis.

In my next column, I will outline the education and exercise principles important for an effective treatment program for knee osteoarthritis.

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