People of all ages can experience knee pain, which may begin suddenly or following physical activity or injury. Several medication options are available to treat knee pain, including over-the-counter drugs, prescription options, and injections.

A person lying down on a bed with a pack on their kneeShare on Pinterest
Holly Clark/Stocksy

Knee pain can start slowly and gradually worsen over time. The medication a person takes to treat knee pain will depend on the cause and severity of the pain.

There are many potential causes of knee pain, including:

This article looks at the best medication for knee pain, home remedies, prevention of knee pain, and when to contact a doctor.

People may treat mild to moderate knee pain with over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen.

NSAIDs relieve inflammation and help with pain management. Some types of NSAIDs are available OTC to treat mild to moderate pain.

OTC NSAIDs include ibuprofen, available under brand names such as Motrin and Advil, and naproxen sodium, available under the brand name Aleve.

Dosage

An adult can take ibuprofen at 800–1,200 milligrams (mg) per day. For naproxen sodium, the daily dose should not be more than 1,375 mg.

A person should follow the instructions on the medication guide and never exceed the recommended daily dose.

Precautions

NSAIDs may increase the risk of stroke or heart attack, which may occur suddenly. These risks may be even higher in people who:

Doctors also associate NSAIDs with a risk of ulcers and holes and bleeding in the intestine and stomach. These risks may be higher for people who drink alcohol frequently, are older adults, or have other health conditions.

The risks associated with NSAIDs may increase for people who take the medication for a long time.

NSAIDs may also interact with certain medications, including:

Read on for the differences between SSRIs and SNRIs.

Potential side effects

NSAIDs such as naproxen may cause side effects, which can include:

People should speak with a medical professional to discuss the potential side effects of NSAIDs.

Acetaminophen is an analgesic or pain reliever that also reduces fever. Some people take acetaminophen to reduce pain caused by osteoarthritis, a type of arthritis that affects the joints, including the knee. People also take acetaminophen to relieve other mild to moderate pain.

Examples of medications that contain acetaminophen include:

  • Panadol
  • Tylenol
  • Actamin
  • FeverAll

Dosage

The maximum amount of acetaminophen a person should take in one dose is 1,000 mg. A person should not take more than 4,000 mg per day.

Precautions

If a person takes too much acetaminophen, there is a risk of liver damage. This may be severe, require a liver transplant, or be fatal.

Potential side effects

Possible side effects include:

People should speak with a doctor if they experience these symptoms after taking acetaminophen.

A person may require stronger medication for more severe pain, which a doctor can prescribe. These may include higher dosage NSAIDs and COX-2 inhibitors, also called coxibs.

Examples of prescribed NSAIDs include:

  • high dose ibuprofen
  • high dose naproxen
  • diclofenac (Voltaren)

Examples of coxibs include celecoxib (Celebrex) and etoricoxib. A person can take these medications as tablets orally or apply them to the knee as a gel or cream.

Dosage

According to the National Library of Medicine, the maximum daily dose of each medication is:

  • ibuprofen: 2,400 mg
  • naproxen: 1,000 mg
  • naproxen sodium: 1,375 mg
  • diclofenac: 150 mg
  • celecoxib: 400 mg
  • etoricoxib: 60 mg

Precautions

People who take NSAIDs or coxibs are at risk of gastrointestinal problems. There is a greater risk of complications if a person:

Potential side effects

Side effects of prescription NSAIDs and coxibs may include:

If a person experiences any of these symptoms and is at high risk, they should consult a medical professional.

If a person has severe pain from injury or illness, such as arthritis, a doctor may administer an injection to treat the pain. Doctors may recommend hydrocortisone or hyaluronic acid injections.

Hydrocortisone injection

This type of injection is a corticosteroid. A doctor may administer a hydrocortisone injection directly into the knee joint.

This medication can treat knee pain from various causes, including injury, arthritis, and bursitis. The injection helps reduce swelling and pain and makes movement easier.

Dosage

A person may be able to have injections in the knee up to four times a year. The dosage can vary between 5 mg and 50 mg of hydrocortisone.

Precautions

Hydrocortisone may not be suitable for people who:

  • have an infection
  • have or have had depression
  • have been in recent contact with a person who has:
  • have recently had vaccinations or are having vaccinations soon
  • are pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to become pregnant

Hydrocortisone may also cause complications in people who have:

People should speak with a doctor about the injections’ potential risk factors and complications.

Potential side effects

Side effects of hydrocortisone injections may include pain and swelling at the injection site and bruising.

Serious side effects include:

  • signs of infection such as:
    • fever
    • chills
    • sore throat
    • ear or sinus pain
  • depression or mood swings
  • puffy face or weight gain in the upper belly or back
  • swelling and throbbing in the legs or arms
  • chest pain
  • confusion and sleepiness
  • changes to vision

A person can speak with a medical professional if experiencing any of the side effects described above.

Hyaluronic acid

A doctor may inject hyaluronic acid into the knee to increase the supply of the acid. This can help relieve pain and may improve other symptoms of conditions that affect the knee joint, such as osteoarthritis.

Dosage

Depending on which hyaluronic acid a doctor uses, they may administer one to five injections over several weeks.

Precautions

If a person is pregnant or breastfeeding, they should let a doctor know before starting this medication. People should also inform a doctor if they develop an infection in the knee or a skin problem.

Potential side effects

Side effects of hyaluronic acid injection may include pain and swelling at the injection site and difficulty moving the knee immediately after the injection. These symptoms are usually temporary, and applying ice helps ease the pain.

Less common side effects include:

  • bleeding
  • blistering
  • burning or coldness
  • discoloration of skin
  • hives or rash
  • joint infection
  • inflammation
  • itching or stinging
  • lumps
  • numbness and tingling
  • redness, soreness, and tenderness
  • ulceration and warmth at the injection site

People should seek medical attention if they experience mild or more severe reactions.

Knee pain may sometimes go away on its own. If the pain is not severe, a person may be able to treat it at home by:

  • putting as little weight as possible on the knee
  • avoiding standing for a long time
  • using an ice pack on the knee for up to 20 minutes every 2–3 hours
  • taking acetaminophen

Learn more about the home remedies for knee pain.

To help prevent knee pain, a person can:

  • balance rest and exercise
  • maintain a moderate body weight
  • wear suitable footwear with arch supports

A person should contact a doctor about knee pain if:

  • the pain is severe
  • there is swelling in the knee
  • there is no improvement after a week
  • there is no movement
  • the knee cannot bear weight
  • the knee locks or buckles

The medication a person receives for knee pain can depend on the cause and severity of the pain.

A person may take OTC medication for mild to moderate pain, such as ibuprofen or naproxen. If the pain is more severe, a person may require medication prescribed by a doctor, such as a higher dose of NSAID or COX-2 inhibitors. A doctor may sometimes administer injections and inject hydrocortisone or hyaluronic acid into the affected area.

A person can also treat knee pain at home by resting, raising the knee, and applying ice.