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Arthritis: Medications to Relieve Pain

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Chronic Pain
The chronic pain associated with arthritis can very seriously affect your quality of life. If left untreated, it can also lead to physiological problems such as muscle breakdown or weakness as well as psychological difficulties such as anxiety and depression.

woman with low back pain
Arthritis is a common cause of back pain.

Choices
But you don't have to live with pain. Today, there are a wide variety of treatments that can help relieve the pain and discomfort of arthritis. This article discusses some of the most common non-surgical treatments for arthritis, particularly for arthritis of the spine. Remember to talk to your doctor before starting any treatment plan.

You can also visit the Osteoarthritis Center on Practical Pain Management, one of our sister sites. For people living with chronic pain, it's an excellent medications resource (all articles are reviewed by leading pain management specialists).

Medications
People with arthritis today have numerous pain medications that can be used to relieve their pain. Some require a doctor's prescription, some do not. However, do not assume that just because a drug is available without a prescription or "over the counter", it is safe for everyone.

Talk to your doctor about which pain medications are best for you. Be sure to let your doctor know what other medications you are taking, even for other health problems.

Non-Prescription Medications

  • Acetaminophen (ie, Tylenol):  This is the drug of choice for mild to moderate arthritis pain because it has very few side effects and is relatively inexpensive. It is used to help relieve pain but does not reduce inflammation. Acetaminophen may cause liver problems in people who consume large amounts of alcohol.
  • Non-steriodal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen):  These medications are often used for moderate to severe arthritis pain. They treat pain as well as inflammation. Like acetaminophen, they are relatively inexpensive. However, many patients report stomach upset from NSAIDs. These drugs may also interfere with other medications or cause serious side effects. Talk to your doctor before taking any NSAIDs.
  • COX-2 Inhibitors (Celebrex):  A new type of NSAID that may not cause stomach irritation. Works well for moderate to severe arthritis pain. These drugs are often more expensive than other NSAIDs.

Prescription Medications:

  • Opioids (oxycodone, morphine, codeine, meperidine):  May be used to for short-term treatment of severe or sudden onset of arthritis pain, however, they are rarely prescribed due to their addictive nature.
  • Narcotic analgesics:  While acetaminophen is an analgesic, sometimes arthritis sufferers need additional pain relief. There are a number of narcotic analgesics available by prescription that may help. These include propoxyphene hydrochloride (Darvon) and acetaminophen with codeine. Narcotic analgesics may cause serious side effects when used over long periods of time.
  • Topical analgesics, ointments or creams:  These are medications that are rubbed into the skin. They usually have fewer side effects since they only affect the area of the body where they are applied.
  • Corticosteroids:  These are not used for pain but are strong medications used for types of arthritis that include inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Updated on: 05/09/11
Harry N. Herkowitz, MD
Medications used for spinal arthritis are similar to those used for arthritis in other joints such as hips and knees. Also, begin with over the counter medicines as these are often very effective. These include stomach coated aspirin or ibuprofen or naproxin. Prescription medications such as the newer Cox2 inhibitors (e.g. Celebrex) may be considered if the primary drugs fail. For patients with symptoms of pain or numbness in the legs, cortisone injections into the spine may be considered. Check with your physician before using any of these medications.
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