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The first step with medication is often over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen. You can take them occasionally, as needed, for pain. Don’t take more than recommended on the label, as that may increase the risk of side effects.

If you find yourself needing over-the-counter pain relievers on most days, check with your doctor. A prescription anti-inflammatory drug may better ease your pain and swelling. Injections of strong anti-inflammatory steroids directly into specific joints are also effective for many but can be used only every few months. More frequent use may damage the joint cartilage.

Another OA treatment, viscosupplementation, involves injecting hyaluronic acid into the affected joint. Hyaluronic acid is naturally found in joint fluid, where it serves as lubricant. Unlike NSAIDs and steroids, these injections don’t take effect immediately.

Cymbalta, a medication originally used as an antidepressant, may also help with OA pain.

There is also a role for topical painkillers. These are available as creams, salves, or gels with a host of active ingredients including capsaicin which stems from  hot peppers. These can help if your pain is mild. They can also be used as an add-on with other medications to achieve maximum control of your OA pain.

Some researchers are experimenting with platelet-rich plasma (PRP). This entails extracting platelet cells from your own blood, and re-injecting them into the injured joint, stimulating your body's natural healing process. Experts don’t agree on its effectiveness and more research is needed to determine how helpful it is for OA.

Other OA Treatments

Medication on its own is often not enough. So what else can help? Physical and occupational therapy along with assistive devices such as knee braces, canes and/or shoe insoles can help correct joint misalignment, and strengthen muscles surrounding achy joints.

For example, people with knee OA are often told to strengthen the quadriceps muscle (the big muscle on the front of the thigh). This can help insulate the joint from stress. It’s best to learn the correct way to exercise from a physical therapist or trainer to avoid overdoing it and getting injured, Hillstrom says.