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Osteoarthritis Health Center

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National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

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How Is Osteoarthritis Treated? continued...

2 Warning: NSAIDs can cause stomach irritation or, less often, they can affect kidney function. The longer a person uses NSAIDs, the more likely he or she is to have side effects, ranging from mild to serious. Many other drugs cannot be taken when a patient is being treated with NSAIDs because NSAIDs alter the way the body uses or eliminates these other drugs. Check with your health-care provider or pharmacist before you take NSAIDs. Also, NSAIDs sometimes are associated with serious gastrointestinal problems, including ulcers, bleeding, and perforation of the stomach or intestine. People over age 65 and those with any history of ulcers or gastrointestinal bleeding should use NSAIDs with caution.

The U.S Food and Drug Administration has warned that long-term use of NSAIDs, or use by people who have heart disease, may increase the chance of a heart attack or stroke. So it’s important to work with your doctor to choose the one that’s safest and most effective for you. Side effects can also include stomach upset and stomach ulcers, heartburn, diarrhea, and fluid retention. For unknown reasons, some people seem to respond better to one NSAID than another.

Other medications: Doctors may prescribe several other medicines for osteoarthritis. They include the following:

Topical pain-relieving creams, rubs, and sprays: These products, which are applied directly to the skin over painful joints, contain ingredients that work in one of three different ways: by stimulating the nerve endings to distract the brain’s attention from the joint pain; by depleting the amount of a neurotransmitter called substance P that sends pain messages to the brain; or by blocking chemicals called prostaglandins that cause pain and inflammation. Examples of topical medications are Zostrix, Icy Hot, Therapeutic Mineral Ice, Aspercreme, and Ben Gay.
Tramadol (Ultram): A prescription pain reliever that is sometimes prescribed when over-the-counter medications don’t provide sufficient relief. It carries risks that don’t exist with acetaminophen and NSAIDs, including the potential for addiction.
Mild narcotic painkillers: Medications containing narcotic analgesics such as codeine or hydrocodone are often effective against osteoarthritis pain. But because of concerns about the potential for physical and psychological dependence on these drugs, doctors generally reserve them for short-term use.
Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids are powerful antiinflammatory hormones made naturally in the body or man-made for use as medicine. They may be injected into the affected joints to temporarily relieve pain. This is a short-term measure, generally not recommended for more than two to four treatments per year. Oral corticosteroids are not routinely used to treat osteoarthritis. They are occasionally used for inflammatory flares.
Hyaluronic acid substitutes: Sometimes called viscosupplements, these products are designed to replace a normal component of the joint involved in joint lubrication and nutrition. Depending on the particular product your doctor prescribes, it will be given in a series of three to five injections. These products are approved only for osteoarthritis of the knee.

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