Arthritis: Medications to Relieve Pain

Overview of medications used to treat spinal arthritis, a common cause of back pain, also called osteoarthritis or spondylosis.

The type of arthritis that more commonly affects the spine is osteoarthritis, also called spondylosis. Other types of arthritis that are inflammatory in nature include rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. Here, you’ll learn about medications for osteoarthritis that affects your neck (cervical spine), mid back (thoracic spine), and/or low back (lumbar spine).
Older woman holding her neck having painIt is not uncommon for arthritic neck or back pain to be accompanied by other symptoms, such as tingling sensations, numbness, or muscle spasms. Photo Source:

Pain and Other Symptoms of Spinal Osteoarthritis

The intensity and type of pain people experience as a result of arthritis in the spine varies from mild to severe, and occasional to episodic to chronic. Each type of pain is treated differently. Of course, it is not uncommon for arthritic neck or back pain to be accompanied by other symptoms, such as tingling sensations, numbness, or muscle spasms. Learn more about the range of osteoarthritis (spondylosis) symptoms.

What OTC and Prescription Drugs Treat Spinal Osteoarthritis?

Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications for spinal arthritis are usually the same as those taken to treat joint-related arthritic pain in the hips and knees—unless the diagnosis is rheumatoid or another type of inflammatory arthritis. For patients with symptoms of pain or numbness affecting the arms or legs, a spinal injection may be considered.

Today, people with spinal arthritis have access to different types of pain medications that can be taken or applied to relieve 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, that it is safe for everyone.

Make Sure Your Doctor Knows About All Medications, Vitamins, and Supplements

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. Besides other drugs you take, tell your doctor about any vitamins, supplements or herbal products you use. This can help you to avoid drug interactions. Here are other tips for safely using medication.

Non-Prescription Medications for Spinal Osteoarthritis

  • Acetaminophen (ie, Tylenol) is the drug of choice for mild to moderate spinal arthritis pain because it has few side effects and is relatively inexpensive. It is taken to help relieve pain but does not reduce inflammation. Acetaminophen may cause or contribute to liver problems when consumed with alcohol.
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen) are often taken to help relieve moderate to severe osteoarthritis pain. These medications treat pain and 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.
  • Topical creams and ointments may be applied to skin where pain is felt. There are many different types of these OTC products.

Prescription Medications for Spinal Osteoarthritis

  • Prescription strength NSAIDs are stronger doses of a chosen non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that helps block certain pain-producing chemicals in your body.
  • Muscle relaxants have a sedating effect and are prescribed to ease muscle tension.
  • Opioids (oxycodone, morphine, codeine, fentanyl) may be prescribed to manage severe pain.
  • Lidocaine in an adhesive patch form may be prescribed for placement on the skin over the painful area.

Spinal Cord Stimulation: An Alternative or Adjunct to Medication for Spinal Osteoarthritis?

If you’ve taken several medications for your spinal osteoarthritis with little relief, your doctor may recommend spinal cord stimulation (SCS), also known as neuromodulation to help relieve your chronic back or neck pain.

Spinal cord stimulation generates mild electrical impulses that block pain signals from reaching your brain. Pain is perceived in the brain. Neuromodulation involves implanting a small generator either in your abdominal or buttock area and thin wires called leads into the spinal canal. Some patients are not candidates for SCS, such as people who are pregnant, have a heart condition, epilepsy or have an existing implanted device such as a pacemaker. If your doctor recommends SCS, the first step is a trial period where the system is temporarily worn outside your body. If your pain improves using the stimulator, the device may be implanted surgically.

For some patients, spinal cord stimulation also helps them reduce their dependence on opioids or other pain medications. If you’re concerned about tapering or weaning off your pain medication, talk to your doctor about strategies that may ease this process.

Treating Spinal Osteoarthritis May Take a Combination of Therapies

Talk with your doctor about your neck and/or back pain to make sure your diagnosis is accurate and current. Remember that certain types of back problems are degenerative, meaning they may change, improve, or worsen with time. Management of your spinal arthritis pain may involve more than 1 medication or therapy. You have choices, and your doctor can work with you to find the right drug or combination of medications and therapies to ease your spinal osteoarthritis (spondylosis) symptoms.

Updated on: 08/27/19
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How Do Topical Drugs Reduce Back and Neck Pain?
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How Do Topical Drugs Reduce Back and Neck Pain?

Topical drugs seek to reduce inflammation below the skin surface and soothe nerve pain. Topical pain relieving drugs include preparations applied to the skin as a cream, ointment, gel, spray, or patch (eg, Lidoderm patch).
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