Medicines for RA Pain and Inflammation

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you know the feeling. Your joints are painful, stiff, and swollen -- and you're looking for quick relief.

There are a lot of medicines that can help. Although the best approach is to use prescription drugs that slow down your disease, you can also fight your symptoms with meds you can find easily on the shelves of your pharmacy.


These drugs lower inflammation that's causing many of your RA symptoms. They can ease your joint pain, achy muscles, and stiffness.

Their formal name is nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and you can get them over the counter or with a prescription. There are quite a few choices, and they come in generic and brand-name versions. Here are some of the more common ones.

Over the counter:

  • Ibuprofen
  • Naproxen


  • Celecoxib
  • Diclofenac
  • Indomethacin
  • Meloxicam

Like any medicine, these have both risks and side effects. You could also get an upset stomach if you take NSAIDs regularly.  Some of the more common problems that come with them include:

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Heartburn
  • Stomach Pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea,  constipation, or both

If you take high does or use them often and for a long time, NSAIDs may raise your chances of a heart attack or stroke.

Long-term use can also lead to painful ulcers or bleeding. If that happens, your doctor might give you another drug to protect your stomach while you take the NSAID.


These drugs, also called steroids, ease pain and inflammation too. They come in the form of pills and shots. Prednisone is the one most often used for RA symptoms.

It’s better if you only take steroids for a short while. Over time, they cause weight gain. They can also make your bones brittle and more likely to break, a condition called osteoporosis. These drugs can also raise your chance of having diabetes, cataracts, and high blood pressure and increase your risk of infection.


It's fine to take over-the-counter acetaminophen when your joints hurt occasionally. But if you have severe joint damage and constant pain, your doctor may prescribe something stronger.

One option is to take acetaminophen paired with an NSAID. In rare cases, your doctor might prescribe short courses of opioids. These drugs have side effects and some serious risks. You could become constipated, too sleepy, or foggy. Over time, you might get dependent on or addicted to the drug.


Creams, Gels, or Patches

If your pain is only in one small area of your body, your doctor might have you try a drug that goes on your skin. You may hear him call this a topical medicine. You rub a small amount of cream or gel over the joint that hurts. Some of these medications come in patches.

Your choices for this kind of medicine include NSAIDs, lidocaine, and capsaicin, the chemical in hot peppers. You can buy some over the counter, and your doctor will prescribe others.

Medication that you put on your skin may have fewer side effects than those you take by mouth. That's because they don't get into your bloodstream. However, that also means they may not work as well for RA as they might for other conditions.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on October 04, 2018



American College of Rheumatology: "NSAIDs: Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs."

Argoff, C. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, February 2013.

Harvard Medical School: "Patient Education Center: Rheumatoid Arthritis."

Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center: "Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment."

The Merck Manual: "Celecoxib," "Diclofenac," "Indomethacin," "Ketoprofen," "Meloxicam."

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: "Handout on Health: Rheumatoid Arthritis."

Arthritis Foundation: “Over-the-Counter Meds Have Risks Too.”

Cleveland Clinic: "Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Medicines (NSAIDs).”

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