What is the best medication for arthritis pain?

Pain is one of the most commonly reported symptoms of arthritis. Several over-the-counter and prescription medications can help, as can self-care strategies and alternative treatments.

Chronic arthritis pain affects 1 of 4 people in the United States. This pain can be severe and localized in the joints.

Several medications can manage arthritis pain. The best treatment depends on a variety of factors, including:

  • the type of arthritis
  • its severity and symptoms
  • overall health

This article explores the best approaches to arthritis pain and other symptoms, including medications, home remedies, lifestyle changes, and alternative treatments.

Some of the drugs we are talking about can cause an allergic reaction, which can be serious.

For someone with arthritis, joint pain and stiffness can make movement difficult. Medications aim to manage pain, prevent joint damage, and maintain or improve mobility.

These medications may be available over-the-counter (OTC) or by prescription. Most medications are oral, but people can apply or inject others to the skin.

A person can buy them at grocery stores and pharmacies without a prescription. These are generally safe, but certain health conditions or taking other medications can make them less safe.

Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) treats fevers and mild to moderate pain.

It works by reduce the production of prostaglandins, compounds made from fats that can increase pain sensitivity.

A person can choose between Tylenol and a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as Motrin or Advil. Arthritis usually causes joint inflammation, and NSAIDs fight inflammation, unlike acetaminophen.

For adults, doctors warn against taking more than 4 grams of acetaminophen daily to avoid overdose. Many medications contain acetaminophen, so it’s crucial to check all medication labels carefully and stay below this limit.

Acetaminophen is safe for pregnant women and children, but during pregnancy take the lowest effective dose for the shortest duration needed. This is to avoid rare but serious complications.

This medicine can also cause serious side effects, including:

Anyone with shortness of breath or nausea and vomiting needs urgent medical attention.

NSAIDs

NSAIDs are considered one of the most effective over-the-counter pain medications for osteoarthritis, which causes inflammation. These medications reduce the pain, stiffness, and swelling caused by arthritis.

Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) is a common example of an NSAID.

Side effects may include:

NSAIDs also put a person to a higher risk stroke, heart attack and kidney damage.

A person should use these drugs only when needed. If this happens daily, doctors prescribe proton pump inhibitors or H2 blockers to prevent gastrointestinal problems from NSAID use.

To avoid complications, people who are pregnant, nursing, or over the age of 65, or have other ongoing medical conditions, should consult a healthcare practitioner before taking these medications.

Aspirin

Over-the-counter aspirin can treat mild to moderate pain. It is a unique type of NSAID because it prevents blood clots from forming.

Taking ibuprofen within hours of taking aspirin may interfere with the cardiovascular benefits of aspirin and may increase the risk of side effects.

Learn more about the possible side effects of mixing these NSAIDs.

Topical

Medicated creams, gels, liquids or patches can be helpful when arthritis only affects small joints, such as the fingers.

These products may contain NSAIDs, capsaicin, an anesthetic called lidocaine, menthol, camphor, or a combination.

Topical NSAIDs may work for people who cannot take these medications by mouth because the body absorbs less through the skin. Doctors consider topical NSAIDs to be safer in the management of osteoarthritis.

Learn more about precautions to take with oral NSAIDs.

For some people, treating arthritis also requires medication prescribed by a doctor.

Prescription NSAIDs

These are more potent than those available over the counter. Examples of prescription NSAIDs include:

Prescription Opioids

Doctors only prescribe opioids when other, safer painkillers don’t work. These medications can help relieve persistent, moderate to severe pain, otherwise it limits quality of life. It is crucial to take the lowest effective dose for the shortest effective period of time.

Examples of opioid medications include oxycodone, codeine, and tramadol.

Opioids can pose serious risks, including overdose and addiction, and they are not suitable for everyone. An overdose can be fatal and long-term use can increase the risk of addiction and withdrawal. The doctor will describe the risks, possible benefits and alternatives.

Opioids can also cause side effects, including:

  • drowsiness and dizziness
  • nausea
  • constipation
  • slowed breathing
  • impaired thinking, memory and concentration
  • a low libido
  • reduced fertility
  • erectile dysfunction
  • more difficulty fighting infections

It is essential to work with the doctor to establish goals and guidelines for safe use. An Opioid Pain Agreement Consent Form may be a good idea before starting treatment.

Steroids

Steroids reduce the activity of the immune system to reduce inflammation.

They are fast acting, making them useful as an initial treatment before other medications take effect. It is important to note that steroids do not treat all causes of pain, only inflammatory disorders.

Doctors prescribe steroids as oral or injected medications. Steroid injections can cause infections, bleeding, skin discoloration, allergic reaction, and tendon damage.

Corticosteroids are best for short-term use, if possible, as they can have a number of side effects.

Long-term use of any steroid can cause:

Glucocorticoids are a type of corticosteroids and can cause avascular bone necrosis. They can also play a role in the development of non-alcohol related fatty liver disease.

Injections

Hyaluronan, or hyaluronic acid, is a fluid that cushions and lubricates the joints. Doctors can inject it to treat osteoarthritis of the knee.

Studies, such as 2015 research, concluded that hyaluronic acid can help manage this condition by reducing pain and improving joint function. However, the effects can only be moderate and in the short term.

Antidepressants

Doctors may prescribe antidepressants to manage chronic pain due to osteoarthritis.

Antidepressants can cause side effects, including:

  • abdominal pain
  • nausea
  • bleeding in the digestive tract
  • dry mouth
  • a risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviors

Learn more about the side effects of antidepressants.

The following approaches can help reduce arthritis symptoms:

Exercise

Regular physical activity can reduce joint stiffness and pain and improve mobility for people with arthritis. A person can try low impact exercises, such as:

Supplements

According to the Arthritis Foundation, certain vitamins and supplements can help relieve arthritis symptoms.

Although studies have found mixed results, glucosamine and chondroitin can relieve joint pain and help maintain cartilage structure.

Another option is curcumin. It is the active ingredient in turmeric. Its anti-inflammatory properties mimic the effects of ibuprofen, but without the side effects.

Learn more about the best arthritis supplements here.

Maintain a moderate weight

Carrying extra weight can put extra pressure on weight-bearing joints, such as the knees and hips.

For some overweight people, losing 1 pound (lb) may relieve 4 books pressure on the knees. This can reduce pain and help improve function and mobility.

Heat and cold

Cold compresses can soothe painful and swollen joints. And adding heat therapy to a morning routine can help relax joints and reduce muscle spasms and stiffness.

Assistive devices

Crutches, a cane, or a walker can help relieve pressure on joints, prevent overuse, and promote healing. These may also help improve balance and prevent falls in people with arthritis.

Adaptive equipment

The use of dressing aids, tongs and other long-handled equipment can reduce strain and help people with reduced mobility.

Learn more about the best home remedies for arthritis here.

Several promising alternative treatments are available for people with arthritis. But limited studies confirm their effectiveness.

  • Acupuncture: It involves the use of fine needles, pressure, and heat to release or redirect energy from the body, which can result in pain relief.
  • Yoga: It involves stretching and strengthening movements and postures, which can help improve muscle strength, flexibility, and range of motion.
  • Massage: It can improve blood flow to joints, temporarily relieve pain, and reduce muscle and joint stiffness.
  • Omega 3 : These fatty acids, available in fish oil and other supplements, can block certain sources of inflammation. A study 2020 concluded that they can help treat arthritis.

Learn more about fish oil for arthritis.

Although arthritis has no cure, a range of medications and self-care strategies can help manage symptoms and reduce the likelihood of flare-ups.

Treatment for arthritis involves managing pain, maintaining or improving function and mobility, and delaying joint damage. The best approach involves a combination of medication and alternative therapies, including self-care strategies.

A healthcare professional will consider the severity of arthritis and a range of factors unique to each person before recommending a course of action.