Get this: The average American walks an impressive 75,000 miles by the age of 50. All that time on our feet is good for our heart and health. Yet over time, all that walking can lead to wear and tear on the knees, especially for people who are overweight. In fact, carrying just 10 extra pounds creates 40 pounds of additional pressure on the knees—and the more a person weighs, the higher that pressure. Considering the number of steps we’re taking, it’s easy to see how knees are especially vulnerable.
That may be why the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons reports that knee pain is on the rise, prompting a whopping 18 million physician visits each year. “The knee is one of the most used joints in the body—and it’s also one of the most fragile,” says Rick Olderman, a sports and orthopedic physical therapist in Denver. Of course, giving up activity isn’t the answer. If you suffer from knee pain and you’re looking for remedies to ease your discomfort, consider these well-tested natural solutions.
1. Get a Massage
When your knee pain is nagging you, there’s a good chance a deep, therapeutic massage by an experienced practitioner will help immediately, says Olderman. “There is actually only one muscle that controls the knee—the popliteus—which helps regulate rotation and extension of the knee joint,” says Olderman. “When that little popliteus starts ‘complaining,’ having a physical therapist or a knowledgeable massage therapist work on this muscle can do wonders to relieve knee pain almost instantly.”
2. Work Your Glutes
Strengthening your butt muscles is a win-win: Not only will it help you look even better in your jeans, but it can also ease your knee pain. That’s because weak gluteal muscles cause the thigh and lower leg to excessively rotate inward, says Olderman, which torques the knee over time and causes pain. Good news: You don’t need an expensive gym membership or personal trainer to get the benefits. Just add this simple move into your go-to exercise routine, says Olderman: On your elbows and knees, keep your right leg bent at 90 degrees as you raise your right foot toward the ceiling. Return your right knee to the floor for one repetition. Do 20 reps on each side; work up to 3 sets of 20 reps per leg.
3. Try Tai Chi
Exercising when you’re in the throes of knee pain can be a catch-22: You know the movement will ultimately help you feel better, but there’s a good chance you feel like camping out on the couch. Well, new research shows that tai chi—the Chinese martial art known for its gentle movements—is as effective as physical therapy in treating knee osteoarthritis. Researchers at Tufts Medical Center in Boston tracked 204 people for 3 months: Half went to physical therapy for 6 weeks and then did 6 weeks of PT at home; the rest went to a tai chi class twice a week. At the end of the study, everyone felt better—the tai chi group’s pain relief matched and even exceeded that of the PT group. Bonus: Tai chi seemed to boost the participants’ mood, as well.
4. Maintain a Healthy Weight
If you’re overweight, it’s time to lose those excess pounds. Think of it this way: Every extra pound you weigh puts about 4 pounds of pressure on your knees when you walk—even more when you run. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by how much weight you need to lose, there’s some good news: Research shows that every little bit of weight loss goes a long way toward reducing knee pain. According to one Harvard University study, the risk of developing osteoarthritis dropped 50% with each 11-pound weight loss among younger obese women. (Lose up to 15 pounds WITHOUT dieting with Eat Clean to Get Lean, our 21-day clean-eating meal plan.) Talk to your doctor about finding a low-impact exercise that can help you shed pounds in a way that’s gentle on your knees. You’ll want to avoid high-impact activities that can worsen knee pain, such as running and jumping, and opt for lower-impact exercises (think swimming, spinning, yoga, and Pilates), in addition to eating a healthy, well-balanced diet.
5. Wear the Right Shoes
Wearing kicks that prompt your body weight to be unevenly distributed (hello, high heels and ill-fitting shoes) can place unnecessary stress on your knee joints, causing pain as a result. One Harvard University study found that the force on the kneecap was 23% greater in woman wearing high heels, compared with barefoot women. To reduce your knee pain, look for footwear with plenty of cushioning in the soles, which can help reduce shock to the knees when you walk. You might also consider wearing shoes designed specifically for running and fitness, as these often have stability and motion control features that can prevent inward rotation of your foot and knee.
6. Add Anti-Inflammatory Spices and Supplements
Using certain spices in your favorite recipes can add flavor, variety, and a dose of anti-inflammatory pain relief. Paired with the right supplements, spices can bring about a big improvement. Jennifer Burns, MD, a physician in Phoenix, recommends turmeric, cinnamon, fish oil, and cod liver oil—all of which have potent anti-inflammatory properties that can help ease knee pain by decreasing inflammation in the knee area. “Whether your knee pain is a result of injury, genes, overuse due to sports, or arthritis, decreasing inflammation in the knee can help,” says Burns.
7. Don’t Forget RICE
Rest, ice, compression, elevation—RICE is an important acronym to remember when you need to treat an acute knee injury that’s causing pain. Taking weight off your knee by sitting or lying down (rest), applying a cold compress (ice and compression), and propping your knee up (elevation) can go a long way toward decreasing inflammation, which will help relieve pain and promote long-term healing.