Osteoarthritis

Frequently Asked Questions

14. What medications are used to treat osteoarthritis?

Doctors consider a number of factors when choosing medicines for their patients. In particular, they look at the type of pain the patient may be having and any possible side effects from the drugs.

For pain relief, doctors usually start with acetaminophen because the side effects are minimal. If acetaminophen does not relieve pain, then non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen may be used. Some NSAIDs are available over the counter, while more than a dozen others, including a subclass called COX-2 inhibitors, are available only with a prescription.

Corticosteroids, hyaluronic acid, and topical creams are also used. Most medicines used to treat osteoarthritis have side effects, so it is important for people to learn about the medicines they take. For example, people over age 65 and those with any history of ulcers or stomach bleeding should use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, with caution.

There are measures you can take to help reduce the risk of side effects associated with NSAIDs. These include taking medications with food and avoiding stomach irritants such as alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine. In some cases, it may help to take another medication along with an NSAID to coat the stomach or block stomach acids. Although these measures may help, they are not always completely effective.

For more tips on how older adults can avoid medication side effects, see Side Effects in the Taking Medicines topic.