What medications can relieve osteoarthritis (OA)?

Geraldine M. Navarro, MD
Some of the medications that are prescribed to relieve osteoarthritis (OA) are Tylenol, which has fewer side effects than other medications, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), though they can cause more side effects. Sometimes, doctors inject steroids into the joint to decrease the amount of inflammation. If that doesn’t work, doctors can inject hyaluronic acid.
Medication for osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease) works best with other pain relief strategies, such as exercising to build your muscles and protecting your joints from injury or overuse. Options include the following:
  • Topical pain relievers, which are applied to the skin, offer one alternative for mild pain relief. Creams containing salicylate, such as Aspercreme or Bengay, and others containing capsaicin, such as Zostrix, are available over the counter.
  • Oral drugs. Doctors often recommend acetaminophen (Tylenol) first because it's effective for mild pain and easy on the stomach. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are generally considered more effective than acetaminophen in treating osteoarthritis because they reduce inflammation as well as pain. The arsenal of NSAIDs includes over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve) as well as prescription drugs diclofenac (Voltaren), indomethacin (Indocin), meloxicam (Mobic), and nabumetone (Relafen). Because the NSAIDs, particularly aspirin and indomethacin, inhibit the enzyme that protects the stomach lining and interfere with blood clotting, they increase the risks of bleeding and gastric ulcers. Some of the prescription NSAIDs, particularly nabumetone, meloxicam, and diclofenac, seem to be relatively gentler on the digestive system. Some formulations, such as Arthrotec or Prevacid NapraPAC, combine an NSAID with a medication that protects the stomach.
  • Glucosamine and chondroitin. These supplements shouldn't hurt you, but their effectiveness is still under study. As always, if you choose to take these or any other alternative preparations, be sure to inform your physician.
  • Injections. Corticosteroid injections into the joint can relieve inflammation quickly, but usually only for a short time. They are recommended no more than two to three times a year, and only when absolutely necessary, because these drugs may increase the risk of infection and can further damage the joints. Another alternative, hyaluronate (Hyalgan, Synvisc), is a synthetic version of a natural lubricant in the joint. It can be injected directly into the knee at weekly intervals for three to five weeks. However, the modest benefits experienced by some patients may not be worth the discomfort of the injections.

Continue Learning about Osteoarthritis Treatment

Osteoarthritis Treatment

Osteoarthritis Treatment

Osteoarthritis (OA) can be treated by managing the pain and stiffness with medications (topical pain relievers, injections and oral drugs or supplements) and regular exercise to build muscle and protect your joints. Other ways to ...

decrease pain and improve function include acupuncture, tai chi and yoga, weight loss, hyaluronic acid or corticosteroid injections, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and braces or heel wedges.

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.