NSAIDs vs. Exercise for Knee Arthritis

We are an NSAID society. I can’t tell you how many 35+-year-old patients I have who rely on these anti-inflammatory drugs to function. This is often due to chronic arthritic knee pain. However, new research suggests that these patients may be better off exercising and ditching the Motrin.

A Review of Exercise for Knee Arthritis

The benefit of exercise for knee arthritis isn’t a new topic on this blog. A new diagnosis of knee arthritis shouldn’t be a free pass to get you out of all future activities; it should, instead, be your red-flag warning that it’s time to strengthen your knee before your arthritis gets worse.

Medical illustration showing a healthy knee joint and two stages of knee arthritis.

The progression of Knee arthritis. Tefi/Shutterstock

Knee arthritis affects both the cartilage and the bone that make up the joint. Cartilage is a cushion between the bones that absorbs shock, and its slick surface allows the bones to glide smoothly with movement. Arthritis occurs when the cartilage wears down—this could be due to normal wear and tear, injury, or even disease. This can create instability and cause bone spurs to form to protect the degenerating joint. Knee arthritis is associated with pain, inflammation, problems with function, and other symptoms. Many other studies have shown the effects of exercise on knee arthritis pain, including a few we’ve covered in the past:

So we have research that shows that exercise can help arthritic knee pain. However, how does exercise compare to doubling up on the Motrin?

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The Benefits of Exercise for Knee Arthritis over Drugs

The purpose of the new study on mild to moderate knee arthritis was to determine the long-term effect on patients who participate in exercise versus those who pop NSAID drugs like Motrin, Aleve, Celebrex, etc… Ninety-three subjects with knee arthritis were randomly assigned to either an exercise group or a drug group (acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug [NSAIDs]) and given instructions for eight weeks. Twelve months later, patients completed comprehensive questionnaires, providing feedback on pain and other symptoms, functionality (e.g., mobility, such as walking up or down stairs; self-care, such as getting dressed; etc.), sports and recreational activities, and quality of life.

The result? While there was no significant difference in sport-related activities (e.g., the ability to run, jump, squat, etc.) within either group, pain, symptoms, function, etc. showed more improvements in the exercise group.

Popping an NSAID Might Be Easy, but It’s Also Dangerous

Popping an NSAID might be easy, but this new study suggests that exercise is a more effective treatment for the symptoms of knee arthritis. In addition, many studies have shown that NSAIDs put us at risk for dangerous side effects, and the list of reasons why not to take NSAIDs never seems to stop growing:

There are things you can do to end your reliance on NSAIDs for pain. Obviously, start an exercise program focused on knee strengthening. In the meantime, if pain relief is necessary, there are high-quality supplements that can help, such as glucosamine and curcumin that can reduce inflammation, address arthritis pain, and even protect cartilage.

The upshot? Ditch the Motrin and start a knee-strengthening and exercise program to help knee arthritis pain. While it seems like it’s easy enough to buy an NSAID drug at the local supermarket, this is one of the most dangerous drugs on the pain-relieving aisle!

Learn about Regenexx procedures for knee conditions.
Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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NOTE: This blog post provides general information to help the reader better understand regenerative medicine, musculoskeletal health, and related subjects. All content provided in this blog, website, or any linked materials, including text, graphics, images, patient profiles, outcomes, and information, are not intended and should not be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always consult with a professional and certified healthcare provider to discuss if a treatment is right for you.

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