Pain in your joints can have many different causes. For many people, joint pain is caused by arthritis, a group of conditions marked by inflammation in the joints.

About 23 percent of adults in the United States have arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis. This type is caused by a breakdown of cartilage as you age.

For others, joint pain may be caused by an injury or infection of the joints, or another condition, such as fibromyalgia or even depression. It can also be the result of poor posture or long periods of inactivity.

It’s possible for people with arthritis to help their symptoms, but many don’t know how. Treating joint pain isn’t always as simple as taking a pill or doing a few exercises, but ignoring the pain won’t make it go away.

Fortunately, there are many available treatment options that you can try. Depending on the cause and severity of your joint pain, you can find the combination of treatments that work for you.

If you’re experiencing joint pain and don’t know why, make an appointment to see a doctor to determine the cause.

Sometimes what may feel like joint pain is actually due to a condition unrelated to joints, such as a muscle strain or bone fracture.

It’s important that you get a diagnosis before trying to self-treat. An early diagnosis of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, can help you better manage the condition.

JOINT PAIN Treatment options

Once you have a diagnosis, you can learn about treatment options for your specific type of joint pain. This may include:

  • oral, injectable, or topical medications
  • diet changes
  • exercise
  • home remedies
  • nutritional supplements
  • physical therapy
  • surgery

Your doctor may first suggest that you treat the joint pain caused by arthritis with anti-inflammatory and pain medications. Here are some examples:

Oral medications

What your doctor prescribes will depend on the underlying cause of your joint pain. For OA — the most common type of arthritis — oral medications include:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve), reduce inflammation and alleviate pain. However, taking ibuprofen for a long period of time isn’t recommended due to the risk of stomach ulcers. Shop for OTC NSAIDs.
  • Prescription NSAIDs include diclofenac (Voltaren) and celecoxib (Celebrex).
  • Salicylates, such as aspirin, can thin the blood and should be used very cautiously if you take other blood-thinning medications. Shop for aspirin.
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol), which in high doses for a long time can lead to liver damage or liver failure. Shop for acetaminophen.
  • Opioid pain medications include hydrocodone (Vicodin) or codeine.
  • Oral steroids include as prednisone or cortisone.
  • Duloxetine (Cymbalta), which is an antidepressant sometimes prescribed off-label for OA.

If you receive a diagnosis with a systemic disease or an autoimmune condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), medications known as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) can help slow down RA’s progression and also slow joint damage.

Newer drugs called biologics provide a more targeted response to inflammation for people with RA, and may help those who don’t respond to treatment with traditional DMARDs.

Injections

Injections can provide pain relief and reduce inflammation. Examples of injections for treating joint pain include:

  • steroid joint injections
  • hyaluronic acid injections

Steroid injections are useful to reduce swelling in the joint, but they wear off over time. There’s also a limit to how many a doctor can give you per year.

Topicals

OTC topical analgesics may help to numb the joint area. Shop for OTC topical analgesics.

Your doctor may prescribe topical medication containing diclofenac sodium. You can also look for OTC creams, gels, or patches containing the following ingredients:

  • capsaicin
  • menthol
  • salicylate
  • lidocaine

Surgery is considered a last resort for relieving joint pain. It’s usually reserved for people with knee or hip osteoarthritis that hasn’t responded to other measures.

Severe cases may require a total joint replacement. For less severe cases, a doctor may want to try osteotomy — a surgery that entails cutting and re-shaping bones to ease pressure on the joint.

An osteotomy is sometimes used to delay the need for total joint replacement for several years, but not everyone with joint pain will be a candidate for this procedure.

Physical therapy is a great way to treat joint pain because it helps improve your range of motion and strengthens the muscles surrounding the joint. This in turn helps minimize overall stiffness and pain.

During physical therapy, you’ll be given a series of customized strengthening and stretching exercises to do on a regular basis. Stretching helps with mobility and overall range of motion.

A physical therapist may also recommend that you wear a brace, especially for knee pain, to assist with stability and function.

Many causes of joint pain can be managed at home with a few lifestyle changes.

Hot and cold therapy

To reduce stiffness in the joints, try alternating cold with hot treatments. Warm showers or baths may help lessen stiffness in your joints in the morning. At night, you can try sleeping with an electric heated blanket or a heating pad.

Cold treatment is also helpful for relieving inflammation in the joints. Wrap a gel ice pack in a towel and apply it to painful joints for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day.

Diet changes

Eating a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables might reduce the symptoms of arthritis.

Research suggests that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants can help prevent inflammation. These foods include:

  • omega-3-rich foods, such as walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseed, and fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel
  • antioxidant-rich foods, such as colorful fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, red wine, and dark chocolate

On top of including more of these foods in your diet, be sure to also cut out processed carbohydrates and saturated or trans fats.

Exercise

Physical activity, such as walking or swimming, can not only decrease pain, but also improve your mood and quality of life. The CDC suggests that people with arthritis should try to get at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week.

Make sure to avoid activities that are more likely to cause joint injuries, such as high-impact exercises like tennis or running.

Tai chi and yoga are excellent activities for people with joint pain. One published study found that tai chi had a positive impact on pain, physical function, depression, and quality of life for people with OA of the knee.

If you’re overweight, you can reduce joint pain and arthritis symptoms by maintaining a healthy weight. Added weight puts more pressure on your joints, particularly your knees, hips, and feet.

If you’re having trouble losing weight, a doctor can refer you to a dietitian to get you started on your weight loss journey.

Supplements

Dietary supplements may help to relieve symptoms such as inflammation and joint pain. No dietary supplement has shown clear-cut benefits for joint pain, but there’s some evidence a few supplements might help.

Examples include:

  • fish oil, which has been shown to help to relieve tender joints and morning stiffness in people with RA
  • ginger, which has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect in laboratory studies and to reduce pain and disability in people with OA
  • glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate could be helpful for people with moderate-to-severe knee pain

Keep in mind that if your joint pain is being caused by another condition, such as RA, home remedies like supplements should never replace medical treatment.

When to see the doctor

While you can manage mild joint pain at home, make sure to see a doctor right away if you experience any of the following symptoms along with joint pain:

  • fever
  • significantly swollen joints
  • joints that are red, tender, or warm to the touch
  • sudden numbness
  • the joint becomes completely immobile
  • inability to function day to day due to your joint pain

There are many treatment options for joint pain, ranging from medications and physical therapy to dietary changes and home remedies. Treatment will ultimately depend on the underlying cause of your joint pain.

If you’ve been experiencing joint pain, visit your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment plan. According to the CDC, people with inflammatory arthritis, like RA, have a better quality of life if they get an early diagnosis, receive treatment, and learn how to properly manage their condition.

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