Although there is no cure for osteoarthritis, there are treatments that focus on relieving the symptoms.
- Light exercise and physical therapy designed to build muscle around compromised joints.
- Occupational therapy to help you find ways to do many everyday tasks without putting extra stress on your already painful joints.
- Osteoarthritis medications in both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription dosages that will help relieve pain, inflammation and swelling.
Osteoarthritis medications fall into several basic categories. While there are a number of brands in each group, your choice will be based on:
1. The severity of your pain
Because osteoarthritis is progressive, you’ll probably need stronger medications over time. Your doctor will likely prescribe the mildest drug that provides relief.
2. Your tolerance for the medication
Reactions to medications vary. What works for one person may cause side effects and allergic reactions in another. For this reason, you will want to meet with your healthcare provider regularly and report any problems.
Osteoarthritis Medication Choices
When you are taking OTC or prescription medications, always follow your doctor’s prescribed dosages.
Acetaminophen (mild-to-moderate pain)
Acetaminophen is an analgesic for pain relief only; it cannot reduce inflammation. It is available in both OTC and prescription form. While it is considered the mildest and, therefore, the first choice of medications, it does have potential side effects: allergic reaction, stomach discomfort, diarrhea or stomach bleeding. Recent research suggests that too much acetaminophen may result in liver damage, so make sure you are not taking multiple medications with acetaminophen. Talk with your physician if you have any concerns or questions.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (mild-to-moderate pain)
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) provide the added benefit of reducing inflammation while relieving pain and range from OTC to prescription dosages.
Reducing inflammation may even slow the disease’s progress. NSAIDs do have a greater chance of causing side effects, such as allergies, stomach discomfort, ulcers and bleeding, liver and kidney damage, and high blood pressure.
Opioids (moderate-to-severe pain)
These prescription medications (available in oral, injected, patch and suppository forms) are designed to work in the brain and nervous system to change the way your body responds to pain. Side effects vary greatly from patient to patient, but may include confusion, nervousness, dizziness, drowsiness, rapid heartbeat, breathing problems, and seizures. And with all opiates you run the risk of addiction when taking medications for a long time and/or at high dosages.
Antidepressants (chronic pain and depression)
While most often used for chronic nerve pain, these prescription medications are proving to help osteoarthritis patients with severe, chronic pain. They may also result in fewer side effects although allergic reactions, facial swelling, headache and agitation are possible.
Steroids (severe pain and inflammation)
When injected directly into the joint, steroids or intra-articular corticosteroids may provide temporary (weeks or months) relief of inflammation and fluid buildup. Typical side effects include facial swelling, breathing problems and allergic reactions.
Nutraceuticals (alternative treatment)
While there is not a lot of clinical evidence for nutraceuticals and dietary supplements, they have given some patients relief. And for those with severe reactions and side effects to osteoarthritis medications, these may be an alternative worth investigating. But before taking supplements, consult your physician and ask for a referral to a qualified naturopath.
How to Find the Right Osteoarthritis Medication
There are many considerations when trying to find the right mix of medications and physical treatment for your osteoarthritis. Effective treatment is more complicated than taking a couple of aspirins and struggling through the pain. You can’t reverse the effects of osteoarthritis, but you may be able to keep moving and avoid surgery. Here are a few important steps you need to take:
Make a Doctor’s Appointment: Rather than picking up random OTC pain medications at the pharmacy, schedule a physical. Your doctor needs to verify that you have osteoarthritis and not another form of arthritis or even gout. Treatments for various arthritic conditions are very different.
Talk with Your Physician: When you meet with your healthcare provider, bring detailed information about your symptoms. This should include a list of medications, including supplements, you are taking, medical history, current medical conditions, details of any past injuries to the joint and how long you have suffered pain.
Match Medication to Symptoms: While not exactly a case of less is more, you do want to choose the least aggressive treatment. In time, you’ll probably need to move on to stronger medications to relieve pain and inflammation…but only when the previous prescription is no longer effective.
Watch for side effects: Once your physician has prescribed medication, you need to continue care—to determine the efficacy of treatment and monitor for side effects. If you have any adverse reactions, you want to alert your physician immediately.
By taking your disease seriously and treating it with the right combination of medications, exercise, physical and occupational therapy, you may be able to avoid surgery.