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Osteoarthritis Medication

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 medications are available to help relieve pain.

Over-the-counter medications

Some arthritis medications can be bought without a prescription.

  • Acetaminophen is effective for moderate pain and does not cause stomach upset. It doesn’t relieve swelling, though, and it cannot be taken if you have serious liver or kidney problems.

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (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 medications that thin your blood, such as Coumadin.

Prescription medications

Some arthritis medications require 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.

  • Celecoxib (Celebrex) is a type of NSAID used to treat arthritis pain. It less likely to cause stomach problems than other kinds of NSAIDs. Other NSAIDs should not be taken along with it. Talk to your health care provider about the risk of heart problems, especially if you have a history of heart disease.

Topical medications

Topical medications 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 medications.

  • 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 medications provide pain relief by numbing the area to which they are applied.

If one medication doesn't work for you, another may help. If you have any questions or concerns about your current medications or other medication options, talk with your health care provider.

Online Medical Reviewer: Holloway, Beth, RN, M.Ed.
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 8/19/2014
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