Arthritis Drug Overview

4 min read

There are dozens of medications available with or without a prescription to treat the various forms of arthritis. Your doctor can help you choose what drugs are best for your particular disease.

These topical drugs can help provide pain relief for people with arthritis that is in just a few joints, such as a hand, or for people whose pain isn't severe.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs are available both over the counter and by prescription. Almost everyone with arthritis has taken or is taking one of these drugs. Prescription doses can help curb joint inflammation.

Acetaminophen: This drug is available without a prescription and is a commonly used pain reliever for people with arthritis. Keep in mind that alcohol and drugs with acetaminophen don't mix. The combination can raise your risk of severe liver damage.

Antidepressants: Your doctor may recommend the use of antidepressants to help treat chronic pain whether you have depression or not. It is not exactly clear how antidepressants help curb pain, but an antidepressant effect on brain chemicals is believed to play a role. Side effects may range from drowsiness to dry mouth and blurred vision. Rarely, these drugs can lead to mood changes or suicidal thoughts.

Narcotics: Narcotic pain relievers work on pain receptors in the brain to relieve pain. They are available by prescription only and may be used to help with more severe pain, but they don't relieve joint inflammation. Often, they are combined with acetaminophen or an NSAID to enhance their effects.  

When you take narcotic drugs, you run the risk of tolerance. That’s when you need more and more of the drugs to get the same effect. You can also become dependent or addicted. In addition, narcotic drugs can cause side effects such as constipation, drowsiness, dry mouth, and difficulty urinating.

Steroids are powerful anti-inflammatory drugs that can treat many forms of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and other forms of inflammation such as vasculitis.

Although effective, steroids can have many side effects, especially when taken as a pill and used long term. Often, doctors try to avoid these problems by injecting the steroid into the affected joint or trying other medications in combination to keep the dose of steroids as low as possible.

There are several versions of hyaluronan injections, also called viscosupplementation, that are used to treat osteoarthritis of the knee. They are injected directly into the joint. Some studies have shown some benefit for reducing pain for periods of up to 6 months, but others have shown more limited results.

These drugs are often able to alter the course of some forms of inflammatory arthritis -- diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, or ankylosing spondylitis -- that can destroy the joints. Often these drugs are the first ones used for these diseases.

DMARDs work by interfering with or suppressing the immune system that attacks the joints in people with certain forms of inflammatory arthritis. Aggressive treatment of arthritis often involves using one or more DMARDs.

Although effective, DMARDs have a higher risk of serious side effects. It also often takes weeks for you to notice the benefits of taking a DMARD. Therefore, they are often combined with a faster-working drug such as an NSAID, another painkiller, or steroids to help relieve some arthritis symptoms.

Approved to treat certain forms of inflammatory arthritis such as psoriatic arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis, biologic response modifiers (biologics) work by altering the function of the immune system that attacks the joints.

These drugs must be administered by intravenous (by vein) infusion or by an injection, and they are more expensive than other arthritis drugs.

Chemotherapy, traditionally used as cancer treatment, helps people with certain inflammatory and autoimmune diseases because it slows cell reproduction and decreases certain products made by these cells that cause an inflammatory response to occur. The doses of medication used for rheumatic or autoimmune conditions are lower than the doses used for cancer treatment.

Some medicines are used to reduce the inflammation associated with acute gout attacks while others reduce the high levels of uric acid that cause the disease.