Understanding Arthritis Painkillers
Weighing the Risks and Benefits
Common Medicines for Arthritis Pain
Acetaminophen (also known by the brand name Tylenol) may be used to treat
mild arthritis pain from osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. It can be just
as effective as some prescription anti-inflammatory pain relievers for mild
pain -- and is easy on the stomach.
Other medications sometimes include acetaminophen as an ingredient, so make
sure you don't end up taking too much of it. Overdoses of acetaminophen can
damage the liver. People who drink alcohol regularly, or already have a damaged
liver, should consult their doctor before taking acetaminophen.
Anti-Inflammatory Painkillers (NSAIDs)
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs called NSAIDs help relieve joint
swelling, stiffness, and pain -- and are among the most commonly used
painkillers for people with any type of arthritis. You may know them by the
names such as ibuprofen, naproxen, Motrin, or Advil.
While NSAIDs are reasonably safe, when taken for months or years, they can
cause stomach ulcers and may increase your risk for heart attack. Cox-2
inhibitors like Celebrex are more stomach-friendly, but may have a slightly
higher risk of heart problems than milder NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or
Recent research also indicates that people who take daily aspirin for their
heart should talk to their doctors before taking any NSAID regularly for pain.
NSAIDs may alter the effect of aspirin.
But here's the question that White at the Arthritis Foundation tells her
patients to ask themselves: "How does a slight risk of heart disease compare to
the risk of arthritis pain itself?"
To reduce the chance of side effects, turn to NSAIDs as a short-term
solution if possible, says White. Ask your doctor to prescribe the lowest
effective dose, or a combination of drugs.
To protect your heart, it also helps to control other risk factors of heart
disease such as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol.
Steroids such as Decadron and prednisone are strong anti-inflammatories that
calm swelling, inflammation and pain.
For osteoarthritis, steroid injections are primarily injected into the joint
for a direct effect on the painful joint. They can also be used for this
purpose for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
High doses of steroid pills can be taken temporarily to treat severe
flare-ups of rheumatoid arthritis. Low-dose pills may be used longer term to
help tame inflammation and pain.
Especially with rheumatoid arthritis, steroids can "make a huge
difference," says White. "Steroids decrease the pain and swelling very
rapidly." After treating rheumatoid arthritis with steroids, White often
follows up with biologic medicines.
However, when taken long-term, steroids can increase a person's risk of
infection, increase blood sugar levels, and thin a person's bones. Most doctors
recommend steroid pills for short-term use. Steroid injections help avoid side
effects outside the joint, and may be used for longer-term use.