Easing the Pain

For people with arthritis or other knee injuries, managing pain with medication is more complex than just taking aspirin. Not every drug is right for everyone. Most drugs have some type of side effect. And relief may come only with a combination of drugs. Because arthritis is a chronic condition that can cause significant pain and discomfort, it requires a careful approach to medication.

Get to know your medications

There’s a great deal of information and misinformation available about medications. Your doctor and pharmacist are helpful sources. So are the package insert and other labeling provided by the drug manufacturer. No matter where you start, it’s important to talk with a doctor about using, changing, or discontinuing medications. Make sure your doctor and your pharmacist know everything you are taking including non-prescription medications and dietary supplements.

The answers to the following questions provide an overview of medications and other approaches to pain management. Just remember, you should discuss this subject with your doctor to determine what specific pain management course is right for you.

Do I have to take drugs to relieve arthritis pain?

Arthritis sufferers have found that they may benefit from a number of pain management techniques that do not involve medication. Ask your doctor about alternatives to medication, or ideas you can try in addition to medication. Some of the most popular techniques are:

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Stress management
  • Massage therapy
  • Relaxation therapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Hot/cold treatment

What are analygesics (pain relievers) prescribed for?

The primary purpose of an analgesic is to relieve pain. The most commonly used analygesic, acetaminophen, is relatively effective and has few side effects. Acetaminophen does not relieve joint inflammation, so it’s less likely to be used for rheumatoid arthritis and other types of inflammatory arthritis, and more likely to be used to treat osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. The main side effect of analygesics is a slight risk of dependency that can occur if the drugs are used for long periods of time.

What are NSAIDs?

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the most frequently used pain medications. They also help reduce redness and swelling. NSAIDs are often used to treat osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, juvenile arthritis, and bursitis. Some are available by prescription only, while others (such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen) can be purchased over the counter. The type of NSAID that your doctor recommends for you will depend on several factors:

  • The type of arthritis or injury you have
  • The degree of your pain and inflammation
  • How your body reacts to the NSAID
  • Other medications you are taking

As with all medications, there are side effects that can occur with NSAIDs. The most common include constipation and stomach irritation (ranging from indigestion and heartburn to development of stomach ulcers if symptoms are left untreated). For this reason, your doctor will monitor you carefully, and you should immediately report any of these symptoms.

When would a doctor prescribe corticosteroids?

Corticosteroids are similar to the hormone cortisol, which occurs naturally in the body. Corticosteroids reduce painful inflammation in joints, but because of potentially serious side effects, they are rarely used as a first choice for long-term treatment. Corticosteroids are almost never used to treat osteoarthritis, and when they are prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis, it is generally to relieve severe symptoms while waiting for another drug, such as an NSAID, to reach an effective level. If they are used for a longer period of time, corticosteroids are generally used in lower doses.

Is it true that sleep can be a factor in arthritis pain?

Not getting a good night’s sleep is a problem for many people with arthritis. If your pain continually awakens you, you may never reach Stage 3 sleep the deep sleep that’s needed for true rest and fatigue can worsen pain. There are many sources of information about getting a better night’s sleep: magazines, articles, books, and websites. Also talk to your doctor, nurse, or therapist.

What can I do if medications don’t relieve enough of my pain?

Pain management with medications can provide day-to-day relief from one of the worst aspects of arthritis. But you also need a plan for the future a plan that goes beyond medications and their side effects, and focuses on long-term relief and a return to activity.

Other Patient Education List

  • American Medical Association
  • American Society for Surgery of the Hand - ASSH
  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons - AAOS
  • American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery
  • North American Spine Society - NASS
  • American Association of Hip & Knee Surgeons - AAHKS