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Osteoarthritis - Medications

Medicine can help reduce your symptoms of osteoarthritis and allow you to do your daily activities.

The goal of medicine is to:

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  • Get rid of pain and have few side effects.
  • Keep your joints working and moving well. If pain keeps you from moving your joints, it can cause the ligaments, tendons, and muscles that move your joints to shorten and become tight and weak.

The type of medicine depends on how bad your pain is. For instance:

  • For mild to moderate pain, you can try over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen.
  • For moderate to severe pain, you may need stronger pain medicine such as opioids.

Medicine choices

Medicines used to treat arthritis include:

Medicine that you put on your skin (topical) may relieve pain for a short time.3 These include topical NSAIDs, capsaicin, and pain-relieving creams.

What to think about

Before you take medicine

Here are a few things to think about:

  • Medicine doesn't cure arthritis or slow the time it takes for cartilage to break down. But it can help reduce pain and stiffness, which can make it easier for you to move.
  • Medicine should be used along with other treatments, such as exercise and physical therapy, to help keep your joints working and moving well.
  • If you have certain health problems, you may not be able to take some kinds of pain medicine. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have a history of bleeding in your stomach or another part of your digestive tract. And tell your doctor if you have a stomach ulcer, kidney problems, or heart failure, or if you take a blood-thinner medicine.

Effects of medicines

Medicines that work for some people don't work for others. Be sure to let your doctor know if the medicine you're taking doesn't help. You may need to try several kinds of medicines to find one that works for you.

Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.

Here are a few things to think about:

  • The medicine you take may cause side effects. Your doctor may suggest that you first try acetaminophen, because it has fewer side effects than any other pain medicine used for arthritis.
  • Most studies suggest that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) work better than acetaminophen for arthritis. But for some people, acetaminophen may work as well as NSAIDs for mild to moderate joint pain. And studies show that acetaminophen is better than no treatment.4
  • If you can't take NSAIDs, and if other treatments haven't worked, your doctor may prescribe opioids. When taken as prescribed, they can be a safe and effective way to relieve pain.
  • Because you'll likely take medicine for a long time, you'll need to see your doctor for regular checkups to look for any side effects that may develop from long-term use. He or she may prescribe medicine that can help prevent stomach ulcers, which may develop when you take pain medicine every day.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: October 17, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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