Safe Medications for Everyday Joint Pain

Safe Medications for Everyday Joint Pain

Which pain relief option is best for you, and which might do more harm than good?

Ask yourself: How do you handle chronic pain? Many joint pain sufferers first start with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. But if the pain gets worse and OTCs are barely taking the edge off, they might upgrade to a prescription drug. Wherever you're at on the pain scale, you probably have a few drug options when it comes to dealing with nagging joint pain. But it's important to choose one that's best suited for your needs–without increasing your risk for other problems.

'Over the counter' doesn't mean harmless
There's almost nothing more convenient and effective than acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) for occasional aches and pains. But if your pain is constant, you should know that reaching for these pills day in and day out comes with very serious risks, like increasing your chances of a heart attack, stroke, liver damage and stomach bleeds.

"For people who suffer from chronic joint pain, it's important to reduce the risks of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other oral pain medications where they can," says Natalie Azar, MD, a rheumatologist at the Center for Musculoskeletal Care at NYU Langone Medical Center. "If you're popping pills for everyday pain, it's time to see a doctor."

Likewise, Azar cautions against the overuse of prescription drugs. "If you're taking oral medicines around the clock as part of your doctor's orders, it's important to know your risks and make sure your doc is monitoring things like your kidney function and blood pressure."

Trade those pills for a patch
The good news is that there are other ways to treat pain that aren't so hard on your body. For example, some prescription patches, gels and creams are great ways to attack pain right where it lives. "These kinds of medicines give you a higher concentration of an NSAID in the area that's inflamed, with up to 10% less systemic absorption than oral medicines," says Azar. These options work best for specific areas of your body where pain is constant, like your knee or shoulder.

Surprisingly, antidepressants can also help, Azar notes. While these drugs were designed to help fight depression, they have a bonus effect of blocking pain signals that lead to your brain. They can take a few weeks to start working, but most people get moderate pain relief.

You might want to also consider acupuncture, magnesium supplements or hyaluronic acid injections (which help lubricate and protect your joints). Want to know another way to ease joint pain? Shed those extra pounds. "I can't even being to tell you how important weight loss is in relieving joint pain," says Azar. "Losing 10% of your body weight is a great start and often a simple solution."

Getting ahead of pain
Let's not toss OTCs to the wayside altogether–especially if you use them before or after exercise. They're good options to help you handle pain so that you can stay fit. "Taking OTC pain medicine 30-45 minutes before exercise is a great way to get through a workout, if you have mild pain," says Azar. "But if you're experiencing any kind of acute pain that you're trying too hard to push through, it's probably not such a good idea." Common sense and talking with your doctor will help you make smart choices. 

Medically reviewed in May 2018.

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