Medications for osteoarthritis may include NSAIDs, pain relievers, and steroid injections, among others. It’s important to speak with a doctor about the potential side effects.

Treatment for osteoarthritis may include over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications to help:

  • reduce inflammation
  • relieve pain
  • slow the progression of the disease

Keep reading to learn more about medications to help treat osteoarthritis.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) help relieve pain and prevent joint damage by reducing inflammation. They come in oral and topical forms.

OTC NSAIDs are one of the first-line treatment methods for osteoarthritis. If these don’t work, a doctor may prescribe stronger NSAIDs.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, the most common NSAIDs to help treat osteoarthritis include:

These medications are available OTC or by prescription for stronger, longer-lasting doses.

It’s important to tell a doctor about any medications you may be taking and underlying health conditions you may have. NSAIDs may interact negatively with some medications or worsen health conditions, such as kidney disease.

You should also discuss other osteoarthritis treatment options if you require NSAIDs long-term, as there are potential side effects. These may range from short-term symptoms like diarrhea, headaches, and stomach irritation to more severe, chronic complications like:

Several other prescription NSAIDs are approved to help treat osteoarthritis, including:

Analgesics, also known as pain relievers, are a type of medication that relieves pain but doesn’t treat inflammation. They’re available in both topical and oral forms.

The most common analgesic used for osteoarthritis is acetaminophen (Tylenol). This OTC medication is available orally as a gel capsule, tablet, or in liquid concentration.

Duloxetine (Cymbalta) is also sometimes used off-label to help treat chronic pain due to osteoarthritis.

Analgesics may provide a long-term alternative to NSAIDs due to their lower risk of potential side effects. However, analgesics don’t provide pain relief for as long as NSAIDs, nor do they reduce inflammation.

It’s important to note that analgesics can still cause side effects that range from mild to severe, including:

  • skin irritation, such as rash and hives
  • facial swelling that affects your throat, tongue, and lips
  • swelling of your limbs, such as hands, feet, and ankles
  • difficulty breathing or swallowing

It’s important to monitor your daily intake of acetaminophen. Taking high doses of acetaminophen for a long time can lead to liver damage or liver failure, which can be fatal.

In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set the maximum dosage for acetaminophen at 4,000 milligrams (mg) per day.

After the FDA made its announcement, McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the company that makes Tylenol, set its maximum daily dosage for acetaminophen at 3,000 mg.

Topical pain medications come in a variety of forms, such as:

They’re alternatives to oral or injectable drugs used to help treat osteoarthritis.

For example, a doctor may recommend a topical NSAID instead of an oral NSAID because topicals allow you to target a specific area without the medication traveling throughout your system.

Topical medications are available OTC and by prescription. Some topical treatments offer immediate, short-term relief, while others offer long-term relief.

Examples of topical pain medications for osteoarthritis may include:

It’s important to speak with a healthcare professional before applying topical treatments for osteoarthritis. Your treatment may depend on which body part is affected.

For example, the American College of Rheumatology and the Arthritis Foundation (ACR/AF) recommend topical capsaicin for knee osteoarthritis, but not for hand osteoarthritis.

Corticosteroids, also known as steroids, are sometimes used to help treat severe osteoarthritis flare-ups.

They’re often injected into the affected joint to quickly reduce inflammation.

Corticosteroids may pose several risks if used for long-term treatment. Some potential side effects of using corticosteroids include:

Some corticosteroid drugs that may be used to help treat osteoarthritis include:

Opioids are prescription pain relievers that change the way you feel pain, but they don’t prevent inflammation.

On their own, opioids are habit-forming, powerful, and sedating medications that could lead to dependency.

The ACR/AF conditionally recommend tramadol (Ultram) for the treatment of knee, hand, or hip osteoarthritis that doesn’t respond to other treatments. However, they conditionally recommend against all other opioids.

In these cases, opioids may be combined with other treatments that aren’t habit-forming and sedating.

Opioids can also impair your balance. This, along with their sedative effect, can cause additional concerns for people with mobility problems and osteoarthritis.

What is the number 1 treatment for osteoarthritis?

The best treatment for osteoarthritis will depend on several factors. For example, lifestyle changes to lose weight may be the best treatment if you have overweight or obesity, while taking NSAIDs may be the treatment to help reduce inflammation in others.

What is the drug of choice for osteoarthritis?

NSAIDs and acetaminophen are the two most common medications used to help treat osteoarthritis.

What are the 4 stages of osteoarthritis?

The four stages of osteoarthritis refer to the severity of the condition. Stage 1 is minor, stage 2 is mild, stage 3 is moderate, and stage 4 is severe.

What should you not do with osteoarthritis?

It’s best to avoid activities that may trigger your osteoarthritis symptoms, such as high impact and heavy weight-barring activities.

There’s no cure for osteoarthritis, but medications can help you manage your condition.

A healthcare professional may recommend OTC treatments or prescribe various oral, injectable, and topical treatments based on your healthcare needs.