RICE Therapy for Knee Pain
Rest, ice, compression, and elevation can help heal your aching knee.
By Lynn Yoffee
Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD
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Knee pain resulting from common strains and sprains can be treated at home by following a simple plan called RICE, which stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
Knee Pain: Rest
If you strain or sprain your knee, stop or reduce your activity level for a day or two. Depending on the severity of the knee pain, your doctor may also suggest that you avoid putting any weight on your knee for up to two days. If needed, crutches or a cane can keep you moving.
"The amount of time you rest varies," says Robert Gotlin, DO, director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. "We recommend and promote rest as part of RICE therapy for as long as you have to in order to get the swelling reduced and the pain to an 'ooooh' rather than an 'ouch.' Rest at least a week, but most muscle strains or sprains are micro-tears of the tissue, and that takes at least three weeks to heal. Don't exercise or do the activity that caused the knee pain in the first place."
William Bargar, MD, director of the Joint Replacement Center at Sutter General Hospital in Sacramento, Calif., and spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, points out that rest can be a double-edged sword. "If you don’t use your joints, they get quite stiff. Sometimes they get worse if you use them. I say to use your symptoms of knee pain as a guide. If, when you do a certain activity, you have significant discomfort or more pain later in the day after doing it on a repetitive basis, you need to cut it out for a while until the pain goes away."
Knee Pain: Ice
Use a bag of ice or cold pack on your knee four to eight times per day for 20 minutes each time. Don't hold it on there longer than 20 minutes because it can cause frostbite. To be careful and more comfortable, surround the ice pack with a towel to avoid freezing the skin.
"Usually, I tell patients to use ice after the activity that caused the knee pain but also to use heat before an activity," Dr. Bargar says. "A little warm-up is helpful, and heat to the joint or a hot shower or tub will help loosen you up, helping to avoid an injury or knee pain."
Knee Pain: Compression
In an effort to reduce the swelling that's causing your knee pain, use a compression bandage. These include either elastic-type wraps, such as an Ace bandage, air casts, special boots, or splints. Check with your health care provider on which one to use and how tight it should be.
"In my opinion, compression is more of a personal choice for comfort," Dr. Gotlin says.
Knee Pain: Elevation
Another way to help reduce the swelling is to elevate your leg on a pillow above the level of your heart. "Just do this for the first day or so to help control the swelling, but no longer," Gotlin says.
Knee Pain: When to See a Doctor
When should you apply RICE therapy at home vs. going to the doctor?
"It depends on how bad the patient is struggling," Bargar says. "A lot of people put it off too long and then are faced with a bigger problem down the road, such as the development of arthritis, which is apt to develop after a knee injury."
Here are some guidelines on when to see a doctor for knee pain from strains:
- The knee is red or has red streaks that spread out from the injured area.
- You can't move your knee.
- You can't put any weight on your knee and the pain is severe.
- You can't take more than four steps without severe pain.
- You experience numbness in or around your knee.
- You have pain in a part of your knee that was previously injured.
- Your knee buckles when you try to use it.
- Your knee appears crooked; lumps or bumps appear other than general swelling.
If you are still unsure, call your doctor for guidance. When you treat your knee pain the right way, you increase the likelihood that you will be up and running at full speed in the shortest amount of time possible.
Video: Video: What Is the Rice Method for Injuries? | UPMC
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