Dr. Drew Henderson, MD, MSc
The bottom line is this – if your quality of life is compromised by pain in your hip or knee, it’s time to discuss the pain with your doctor.
Normal vs. Abnormal Pain
As we age, we are all subject to occasional aches and pains in our hips and knees, especially after exercise or a higher-than-usual level of activity. “Abnormal” pain is a degree of pain that begins to limit your quality of life.
This pain might occur daily, interrupt your sleep and night or prevent you from doing activities you enjoy like exercise and keeping up with friends and family. Needing to take pain medication, like Tylenol or anti-inflammatories, on a regular basis to manage your discomfort is also a sign of “abnormal” pain.
Ice vs. Heat
Ice is an excellent anti-inflammatory and helps reduce swelling without the side effects of medications like ibuprofen. Ice is best used to relieve pain due to swelling, such as the swelling associated with knee arthritis or injury as well as post-surgery swelling after a knee replacement.
Heat is best used for muscle tightness or stiffness. Heat helps to loosen up areas that have pain due to muscle stiffness, such as after exercise or injury.
Pain due to Arthritis
Pain due to arthritis in the hip or knee tends to flare up in specific areas. With hip arthritis, pain tends to be located in the groin and thigh, or on the “front side” of the hip. For knees, pain tends to appear as a generalized aching sensation in and around the knee joint itself, as opposed to radiating all the way up and down the leg.
If you have hip or knee arthritis, the likelihood is that you have some degree of pain in that joint that worsens with activity. Reducing the severity of your pain may be as simple as choosing lower-impact activities like biking or walking.
However, if the amount of pain is so severe you need a narcotic or stronger pain medicine to even function, or you avoid activities that otherwise would make you happy, I recommend talking with your doctor.
Ultimately, rest and anti-inflammatory medications help to control arthritic pain in the hip and knee. But at a certain point, prolonged rest leads to inactivity and muscular deconditioning.
Committing yourself to a life without exercise in order to accommodate pain due to arthritis is a lose-lose situation. I spend a significant amount of time discussing with my patients their specific problems so we can develop a tailor-made plan that best enhances their quality of life.
Pain after Joint Replacement
For the most part, it’s important to consider the type and severity of pain you had before the joint replacement. Feeling less pain overall, with only occasional aches, is a sign you are recovering well. On the flip side, experiencing similar or even worsened symptoms than before you had your joint replaced is a sign to reach out to your doctor.
Following joint replacement, I remind my patients that their muscles and soft tissues around the hip or knee joint are still subject to muscular strain. So, for instance, if you feel sore after beginning a new exercise program, there is no immediate cause for concern.
Conversely, if you experience significant daily pain that requires medication despite no change in your activity level, give your doctor a call.
Dr. Drew Henderson, MD, MSc, is a fellowship-trained hip and knee surgeon with OrthoCarolina’s Winston-Salem office. He specializes in total hip arthroplasty, total knee arthroplasty, partial knee replacement, revision joint replacement and robotic-assisted surgery.