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Osteoarthritis Medicine

Man in locker room putting lotion on knee.

Pain from osteoarthritis can interfere with your life in many ways. It can make it hard to be active and take good care of yourself. Untreated pain may make sleep difficult. It may also contribute to depression and anxiety.

Controlling pain involves lifestyle changes like weight management and exercise. Natural and alternative treatments for pain relief include the use of hot and cold, massage, acupuncture, relaxation, and counseling. Other medicines are available to help relieve pain.

Over-the-counter medicines

Some arthritis medicines can be bought without a prescription:

  • Acetaminophen is effective for moderate pain and does not cause stomach upset. It doesn’t relieve swelling, though. You must talk with your healthcare provider before taking it if you have liver or kidney problems. 

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen, help relieve pain and swelling. Use of NSAIDs can cause stomach and kidney problems and raise blood pressure. Note: Do not take NSAIDs if you take medicines that thin your blood, such as warfarin. Talk to your healthcare provider first if you have kidney or liver disease. 

Prescription medicines

Some arthritis medicines need a prescription:

  • Prescription NSAIDs are stronger than over-the-counter NSAIDs. They reduce pain and swelling. Use of NSAIDs may cause serious stomach problems and easy bruising. In rare cases they may lead to kidney or liver problems. These include nonselective NSAIDs, such as naproxen, diclofenac, and indomethacin. Also, selective NSAIDs, such as meloxicam and celecoxib. Selective NSAIDs are thought to have less of a risk of gastrointestinal side effects when compared to nonselective NSAIDs. 

  • Other medicines, such as duloxetine, tramadol, and narcotic pain relievers, may be prescribed for certain patients based on specific clinical factors. 

Topical medicines

Topical medicines are those applied directly to the skin over the affected joint. They may be lotions, cream, sprays, ointments, or gels. They can be used along with some oral medicines:

  • NSAID creams may reduce swelling and relieve pain.

  • Capsaicin (cream) is made from an ingredient found in chili peppers. It works by stopping production of a substance that helps send pain signals to the brain. It may cause a burning or stinging feeling when you first use it.

  • Other topical medicines provide pain relief by numbing the area to which they are applied.

Intra-articular medicines

Some patients benefit from joint injections with:

  • Corticosteroids used for most joints

  • Hyaluronic acid preparation used for knees 

If one medicine doesn't work for you, another may help. If you have any questions or concerns about your current medicines or other medicines choices, talk with your healthcare provider.


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