What are the treatment options for knee pain?

John Fairhurst
Senior Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist at Bupa UK
08 March 2023
Next review due March 2026

Knee pain is very common and is thought to affect 1 in 4 adults. It can be caused by several different things and there are lots of treatment options. So, what’s the best way to treat your knee pain? Here, I describe some of the different causes and ways you can treat knee pain.

person having a knee consultation

What causes knee pain?

Some causes of knee pain include:

Who can treat knee pain?

If your knee is sore, you may decide to see your GP. Your GP will examine both of your knees and ask about your history of knee pain, to try and work out what’s causing the pain.

Your GP will usually refer you to another healthcare service, depending on what they suspect the problem may be. In some situations, they’ll refer you to a specialist. If you have osteoarthritis, for example, they may refer you to a musculoskeletal clinic or physiotherapist.

Conservative treatment, including physiotherapy, is usually recommended as a first step to treat knee pain. This is because most people recover well using non-invasive therapy. But if your knee pain is severe, ongoing or affects your normal daily activities, you may be referred to a surgeon.

Which treatment is best for knee pain?

The best treatment for knee pain might be different for different people. For example, two people with the same knee injury may have very different levels of activity or pain thresholds. So, treatment options will differ, depending on what’s best for each person.

Many knee injuries can be successfully treated with optimal loading, support for the joint, and physiotherapy. Ice can help ease pain, but it might not help with the swelling.

Infographic: POLICE principles

Bupa's POLICE infographic (PDF, 0.5 MB), illustrates the ‘POLICE principles’ to reduce your pain and help you to recover. Click on the POLICE image below to download the PDF.

An image describing the acronym POLICE

How can I treat knee pain?

The treatment and management options that you’ll need for your knee pain will depend on what’s causing it. The options are:

  • self-help
  • physiotherapy
  • medicines
  • surgery

Self-help for knee pain

If you have a minor injury, you may be able to manage it at home until the pain goes away. Your doctor or physiotherapist may recommend resting your leg and using ice packs. Try to avoid heavy lifting if this makes your pain worse. But heavy lifting can also help your recovery if the pain is controlled.

You may find that low-impact exercise, such as swimming or cycling, helps with long-term pain. A physiotherapist will also be able to suggest exercises that can help your strength and balance. Try to avoid activities that make the pain worse.

For some causes of knee pain, wearing inserts (orthoses) may change how weight is loaded on your knee, which might reduce pain. If you’re overweight, it can help to lose weight so you don’t put as much pressure on your knee joint. This pressure can also cause changes in the cartilage in your knee. Losing weight may also reduce inflammation, which could ease your symptoms, as well as slowing down the changes to the cartilage in your knee.

Physiotherapy for knee pain

Physiotherapy is an important treatment for many knee injuries. The aim is to reduce pain and help your knee recover strength, stability, range of movement and overall function. This might involve strengthening of the muscles in your legs, as well as your buttocks, abdomen, pelvis and back (your trunk muscles). A physiotherapist can also help you change the way you run (your running gait) if this is causing your knee pain.

A combination of approaches – such as taping, exercises and manual therapy – might help reduce pain. Your physiotherapist will work closely with you to create a programme that best suits your needs and could help prevent knee pain in the future.

Medicines for knee pain

The main groups of medicines you can take for knee pain are painkillers and anti-inflammatories. In the early stages, it’s best to avoid anti-inflammatories as they can slow tissue healing.

Surgery for knee pain

If you have a severe injury to your knee or other treatments haven’t worked, you may need surgery. You may need surgery if, for example, you’ve torn a ligament in your knee and are very physically active.

If you have a muscle, bone or joint problem, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. If you’re covered by your health insurance, you’ll be able to get advice from a physiotherapist usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

John Fairhurst
John Fairhurst
Senior Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist at Bupa UK



Sheila Pinion, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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