Understanding Your Arthritis Medication

By Floria, Barbara 
March 21, 2017

Understanding Your Arthritis Medication

Arthritis treatments aim to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Many people with the condition can find some relief through weight loss and an exercise program that strengthens their leg and hip muscles. Many people also take some kind of medication.

“The drugs your doctor prescribes depend on the type of arthritis you have, its severity and your health risks, age and health history,” says Scott Zashin, M.D., a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas.

Here is information about specific kinds of treatments for arthritis.

Pain relievers

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, or analgesics, are often the first medication prescribed for people with osteoarthritis.

“Because of its low cost, effectiveness and safety, rheumatologists recommend acetaminophen as a first-line option against osteoarthritis pain,” says Dr. Zashin. “This drug has a high benefit-to-risk ratio and is safe for people who are unable -- due to allergies or stomach problems, for example -- to take anti-inflammatory drugs.”

For severe pain, doctors sometimes prescribe codeine or hydrocodone.


Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) relieve both pain and inflammation and are widely recommended for people with arthritis.

“Doctors usually start by having people take low doses of OTC medications,” says Dr. Zashin. “If that doesn’t provide relief, they might be prescribed a prescription-strength medication.”

NSAIDs fall into three categories:

1. Traditional NSAIDs, including ibuprofen, make up the largest group of drugs in this class and are available OTC and by prescription.

2. COX-2 inhibitors are available by prescription and help reduce pain and inflammation but are safer for the stomach than NSAIDs.  After the recall of the COX-2 inhibitor Vioxx, studies of other NSAIDs have been conducted. The studies found an increased risk for cardiovascular problems among certain people. If you’ve been taking a COX-2 inhibitor, check with your doctor to determine the safest drugs for you.

3. Salicylates, such as aspirin. Frequent large doses can cause serious side effects. Your doctor will work with you to determine the best dosage and help you prevent or manage side effects, including kidney problems.

“Some people find relief from alternative treatments, such as taking glucosamine and chondroitin, and from acupuncture treatments,” says Dr. Zashin. “The key is to work with your doctor to find the most effective pain relief that controls your pain but doesn’t increase your risk factors for heart or stomach problems.”


March 21, 2017


Vitality magazine/August 2006

Reviewed By:  

Godsey, Cynthia M.S., M.S.N., APRN,Lambert, J.G. M.D.,Louise AkinLouise Akin RN BSN