Understanding osteoarthritis medication
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It happens when the cartilage between the joints wears down and becomes thin. Cartilage is the protective cushioning that stops the bones rubbing on each other. If the cartilage wears down enough, the bones rub on each other, worsening your pain and limiting movement.
There are no medications that can cure osteoarthritis, although studies are underway to find an effective treatment. In the meantime, osteoarthritis medications focus on relieving pain and inflammation.
Treatment usually depends on which joints are affected and the how bad the pain is. It can include diet, exercise, hot or cold packs, over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medicines, physiotherapy, aids and devices, and surgery.
Types of osteoarthritis medication
Different types of medication can ease osteoarthritic pain. Some are tablets and capsules that you swallow. There are some you can rub on your skin. There are some that are injected into the joints.
The most common ones are:
- analgesics (pain relievers), such as paracetamol
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as diclofenac gel and ibuprofen tablets
- topical therapies (that you put on your skin). You can buy gels and creams that reduce the pain. These include topical NSAIDs and capsaicin.
Some people also have injections of corticosteroid (a type of steroid) into their joints to reduce inflammation. These don’t last long-term and can damage the joint if you have them more than once every 4 months.
If these medications don’t work, your doctor may consider anti-depressants like duloxetine or an opioid medication.
Important information about osteoarthritis medication
All medicines can have side effects. Sometimes they are serious, but most of the time they are not. The main concern with oral NSAIDs is a risk of gastrointestinal side effects such as stomach ulcers and bleeding. If you are taking an NSAID, your doctor may also suggest you take a proton pump inhibitor to reduce these problems.
Paracetamol may not work very well for osteoarthritis pain. It can also have harmful side effects if you take it long-term, especially if you are also taking an NSAID.
Before taking any medicines, you may wish to ask your doctor or pharmacist:
- what are the side effects of your osteoarthritis medicines
- what are the benefits
- what to do if you miss a dose
- what to do if you experience side effects
Talk to your doctor as soon as possible if you feel unwell when taking your medicines. Do not stop or change your medicines without talking to your doctor.
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Last reviewed: March 2020