Regular exercise, medications, physical therapy, herbs, and supplements are just a few ways to manage your arthritis pain. You may need to try a combination of treatments before you find relief.

Arthritis is a major cause of disability in the United States.

If it’s left untreated, it can cause a range of symptoms that can seriously disrupt your everyday life, such as:

  • chronic pain
  • stiffness
  • swelling
  • changes to your joints
  • impaired range of motion

If you’re one of the estimated 24% of U.S. adults who have arthritis, learning how to live with the condition can be difficult.

However, it’s usually possible to manage its symptoms and improve your quality of life. Getting a diagnosis and treatment early, before joint damage happens, is key.

Your arthritis treatment regimen will depend on:

  • the type of arthritis you have
  • the severity of your pain
  • your extra-articular symptoms, or how arthritis affects areas outside of your joints
  • your overall health needs

A healthy lifestyle may help lower your risk of developing certain types of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA). It can also make your arthritis symptoms less severe.

Having overweight or obesity increases pressure on your joints. Your risk of knee OA goes up by 35% for every 5-point increase in your body mass index (BMI), according to a 2015 literature review.

Additional weight also contributes to inflammation throughout your body. A 2016 literature review on OA showed that losing weight in a healthy manner may help:

  • lower pain
  • bring down inflammation
  • improve movement

Making lifestyle changes is often the first step in managing your arthritis symptoms. A doctor might recommend that you exercise regularly and eat a diet low in saturated fat and high in unsaturated fat.

Exercise may be particularly useful. According to a literature review on knee OA, exercise has been shown to:

  • improve pain and stiffness
  • protect cartilage in the joint
  • bring down inflammation
  • help joints work better
  • strengthen muscles
  • lower the weight that puts pressure on your joints

Activities such as brisk walking help relieve the pain and stiffness associated with arthritis and extend the life of your joints.

Applying heat or cold to inflamed joints may help with pain, especially pain caused by RA or OA.

Heat relaxes the muscles around sore joints. It also opens the blood vessels and increases circulation, which brings more blood and nutrients into the damaged tissue.

Apply heat by soaking in a bath or using a:

To avoid burns, keep the temperature warm and not hot. Also, the Arthritis Foundation recommends removing the source of heat after 20 minutes so you don’t damage your skin.

Ice is best for relieving soreness after exercise. It helps narrow your blood vessels, which lowers fluid in the tissue and decreases swelling and pain.

Wrap ice in a towel and apply it to the aching area for up to 20 minutes, according to Arthritis Australia. You can ice your joints several times a day.

Did you know?

It’s safe to alternate heat and cold treatments throughout the day. Just wait a couple of hours in between them.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications can help with minor pain and inflammation.

OTC pain medications include acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as:

Acetaminophen only relieves pain. NSAIDs both relieve pain and lower the inflammation that occurs with certain types of arthritis.

Creams can help treat arthritis symptoms, too. You apply them directly to painful areas. Active ingredients in arthritis creams include menthol (Bengay, Stopain) and capsaicin (Capzasin HP, Zostrix).

The best capsaicin products

Read our reviews of the best capsaicin products, including creams, on the market.

Sometimes OTC pain relievers aren’t strong enough to treat your arthritis pain. If this is the case, a doctor may suggest stronger prescription options.

Prescription NSAIDs

Prescription NSAIDs work about as well as OTC versions at relieving arthritis pain, but they’re more effective at bringing down inflammation.

Prescription NSAIDs include:

Opioids

Opioids can provide relief from severe arthritis pain. They include:

  • codeine
  • meperidine (Demerol)
  • morphine (Infumorph, Mitigo)
  • oxycodone (OxyContin, Roxicodone, Xtampza ER)
  • tramadol (ConZip)

These medications may help reduce the pain of arthritis, but they won’t change the course, or progression, of the disease. They can also be addictive and should be used with caution.

Disease-modifying drugs

A class of medications known as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) treat inflammatory forms of arthritis, including RA, psoriatic arthritis (PsA), and ankylosing spondylitis (AS).

Unlike NSAIDs and pain medications, these medications can actually change the course of your disease. DMARDs work more slowly than pain medications, though. It can take weeks or months to see an improvement.

Side effects may vary depending on which DMARD you choose. For example, hydroxychloroquine may worsen psoriasis rashes in people with PsA. Discuss side effects with a doctor before deciding on a treatment.

Biologics

Biologic drugs are made from living organisms. They typically go through a complex manufacturing process.

Examples of biologics that also function as DMARDs include:

Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors are a subtype of biologics. They target TNF, an inflammatory protein.

Examples of TNF inhibitors include:

Biologics are only available as brand-name drugs. In some cases, biosimilars are available. Biosimilars function like biologics and share many of the same active ingredients. However, they tend to be less expensive.

Nonbiological DMARDs

Nonbiological, or synthetic, DMARDs are produced from human-made chemical compounds. They dampen your overall immune system.

Nonbiological DMARDs come in two types.

Conventional synthetic DMARDs include:

Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors are a new type of targeted synthetic DMARD. They belong to a category of drugs called small-molecule drugs. In contrast, biologics are considered large-molecule drugs.

JAK inhibitors target specific parts of the immune system.

These medications include:

JAK inhibitors are only available as brand-name drugs.

Cortisone shots

Cortisone shots are used to decrease inflammation in one specific area of your body. These injections can relieve pain in sore joints, but they can also accelerate bone loss if you get them too often.

Physical therapy can:

  • strengthen the muscles that support sore joints
  • improve range of motion in your affected joints
  • lower pain
  • help you function more easily during your daily activities

A physical therapist can teach you exercises and the proper posture to prevent injuries.

They can also recommend devices such as splints, braces, or shoe inserts to support and take pressure off weakened joints and bones.

People with severe arthritis may require surgery to replace or repair damaged joints. The types of surgery used to treat arthritis include:

  • Arthroscopy: In this type of surgery, a surgeon repairs tears in the knee, shoulder, and other joints after an injury.
  • Osteotomy: In an osteotomy, the surgeon removes or adds a piece of bone to fix improper joint alignment.
  • Synovectomy: Synovectomy is the removal of damaged parts of the synovium, the tissue that lines joints.
  • Joint fusion: In this procedure, a surgeon places pins, rods, or plates into joints in the spine, ankle, or finger to close up space between the bones in your joint.
  • Joint replacement: A surgeon may replace a damaged knee, hip, or shoulder joint with an artificial joint made from metal, plastic, or a polymer.
  • Joint resurfacing: In joint resurfacing, only part of the knee or hip joint is replaced.

A few types of complementary therapies may help with arthritis pain. The effectiveness of these treatments varies based on your arthritis type and other factors unique to you.

Talk with a doctor before trying any new treatment to find out whether it’s worthwhile.

Acupuncture and acupressure

Acupuncture and acupressure are traditional Chinese medicine techniques.

A practitioner aims to restore your body’s energy balance by stimulating various pressure points in your skin, sometimes with fine needles. These treatments may help with arthritis by stimulating blood flow and triggering the release of endorphins, which are natural pain relievers.

It’s not clear from the research whether acupuncture helps with arthritis, mainly because studies measured its effectiveness in different ways. The strongest evidence in favor of acupuncture’s benefits is from research on knee OA, which does show that the treatment relieves pain.

The American College of Rheumatology conditionally recommends acupuncture for knee, hip, and hand OA. Even though the evidence for the treatment’s effectiveness is limited, the risk of side effects is low.

The research is inconclusive regarding whether acupuncture is helpful for RA, according to a 2020 literature review. Although it may relieve pain, it won’t slow joint damage. This literature review also suggests that acupuncture is ineffective for people with hip OA.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a treatment in which a practitioner, such as a doctor or physical therapist, applies a small electric current to specific nerves. It’s believed that this current interrupts pain signals and leads to endorphin release.

Most studies on TENs have included only small amounts of people. As a result, it’s difficult to find conclusive studies recommending its use for chronic pain conditions such as arthritis. There’s some evidence that the treatment may lower pain intensity and improve walking ability.

Because TENS has only mild side effects, it might be worth trying if your doctor confirms that it’s fine for you.

Herbs and supplements

Many herbal supplements have purported anti-inflammatory properties.

Capsaicin, the natural chemical that gives chili peppers their heat, may help with arthritis pain. It’s used in several topical arthritis treatments. The spice turmeric has been used to lower inflammation for hundreds of years.

Several other herbal remedies and supplements have been investigated for arthritis pain, including:

Evidence to support the benefit of these supplements is mixed. Some people with arthritis have found them helpful, while others haven’t seen any improvement while taking them.

It’s important to use caution when taking any supplements. Just because a product is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t verify the contents of supplements. What’s promoted on the bottle may not be exactly what’s inside it.

Some herbal remedies contain ingredients that are similar to medications and can cause side effects or interactions. For example, ginger and willow bark might cause problems with blood clotting. Thunder god vine might weaken your bones if you use it long-term.

To be safe, consult a doctor before taking any supplement.

Arthritis treatment has improved a lot over the years. Today, there are a variety of ways to relieve arthritis pain.

For inflammatory forms of the disease such as RA and PsA, DMARDs can slow joint damage and relieve symptoms. OTC pain relievers and physical therapy can also be a part of your treatment.

You might need to try a few therapies before finding the ones that work best at easing your arthritis pain without causing a lot of side effects. Working with a doctor to fine-tune your treatment will give you the best chance of finding relief.