NSAIDs vs. Exercise for Knee Arthritis

By Chris Centeno, MD /

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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.

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?

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!

Category: Knee

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4 thoughts on “NSAIDs vs. Exercise for Knee Arthritis

  1. Albert

    Why do you think that the anti-inflammatory effects of the NSAIDS is bad for arthritis (your first bullet point), but the anti-inflammatory effects of supplements like curcumin and fish oil is beneficial?

    1. Regenexx Team Post author

      Albert,
      The Chemical makeup is completely different and they therefore work on inflammation completely differently. Please see: https://regenexx.com/blog/new-research-fish-oil-can-turn-bad-inflammation-into-healing/ and https://regenexx.com/blog/does-curcumin-work/ and https://regenexx.com/blog/nsaids-and-stem-cells/ Because of the negative impact of NSAIDs on stem cells and healing, our patients do not take them for a period before, during and after treatment.

  2. Bob

    What type of knee exercises do you recommend?

    1. Regenexx Team Post author

      Bob,
      Speak to your Doctor or physical therapist about what would be appropriate for your particular knee issue. But generally, studies have shown that exercises that work on strengthening the knee are most helpful. One example is a cocontraction exercise in which you tighten the hamstrings and while holding, tighten the quadriceps and hold. The Knee Owner’s manual and Orthopedic 2.0 are great resources for strengthening and stabilizing the knee. Please see: https://regenexx.com/library-complimentary-regenexx-resources/ Please see: https://regenexx.com/blog/knee-arthritis-exercises/ and https://regenexx.com/blog/knee-strengthening-study-sheds-light-on-exercise-for-knee-arthritis/

Chris Centeno, MD

Regenexx Founder

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.
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