For the 50 million Americans living with arthritis, pain is an everyday occurrence. Damaged joints make every movement, from bending to lifting, achy and uncomfortable. Pain relief is the goal of arthritis treatment. Though there are many ways to deal with arthritis discomfort—from exercise to surgery—over-the-counter drugs are among the most common treatments, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the most popular drugs for treating arthritis pain. NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Motrin), naproxen (Alleve, Naprosyn), and aspirin. They work by reducing the production of substances called prostaglandins, which cause pain and inflammation in the body. NSAIDs have a dual action; they not only relieve pain, but they bring down swelling in the joints, too.
Prostaglandins do more than cause pain. They also act to protect the stomach lining against damage by harsh stomach acids. By reducing prostaglandins in the body, NSAIDs can leave the stomach vulnerable to acids, leading to ulcers and stomach bleeding. They can also increase the risk for blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes. If you have a history of stomach ulcers and/or bleeding, heart disease, high blood pressure, or kidney disease, you should talk to your doctor and consider other pain relief options.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is another over-the-counter pain reliever that can help manage arthritis discomfort. The drug works by reducing the feeling of pain in the brain. Unlike NSAIDs, Tylenol won’t decrease joint inflammation. However, it has fewer side effects than NSAIDs. When you take Tylenol, watch the dose. When taken in large amounts over time, or used with alcohol, it can lead to liver damage.
Several topical creams, sprays, and gel pain relievers are available over the counter. They include NSAIDs, which have the same active medicine as the oral versions. Topical medications work to dull pain, and make the skin feel hot or cold. Because ointments and creams don’t travel through the whole body, they have fewer side effects than oral medications. However, when taken with oral pain relievers, particularly NSAIDs, they can cause problems with the stomach lining.
A few herbal remedies have been studied and praised for their pain-relief properties. These include glucosamine and chondroitin, and SAMe—an herb that has also been used to treat depression. However, studies haven’t confirmed that these supplements can relieve arthritis pain, according to the American College of Rheumatology. There is some evidence that fish oils containing omega-3 fatty acids relieve pain, but they can also cause stomach problems.
The evidence on herbal supplements for arthritis pain still isn’t clear. If you’re thinking about trying a supplement, talk to your doctor first. The FDA does not regulate these products, which means it can be hard to know if what you’re getting in the bottle is what’s being advertised on the label. Also, herbal supplements can cause side effects and can interact with other drugs you’re taking.
You may not find relief from the first arthritis medication you try. Everyone’s arthritis is different, and not everyone responds to each drug in the same way. If you’re taking an NSAID or other pain reliever and it isn’t helping, talk to your doctor about switching to another type of drug. Remember to discuss possible side effects and other drugs you’re taking, so the switch is as safe as possible.