Arthritis Medication: Treatment Options

By Sabina Rebis, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
August 19, 2022

Arthritis medications help treat pain and improve quality of life. 

There are many types of medications for arthritis as well as other treatment options like over-the-counter pain relievers and topical creams.

The type of arthritis medication that is most effective depends on the specific type of arthritis and many other factors. 

In this article, we’ll explore the types of arthritis medications and treatments, alternative options, and when to see a medical provider.

Types of Arthritis Medications

The types of medications used to treat arthritis depend on several factors, such as:

  • The type of arthritis a patient has
  • Their age
  • Severity of symptoms
  • Whether a person is pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or breastfeeding

Treatment options for arthritis include prescription drugs, OTC medicines, and some complementary and alternative options.

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Prescription Arthritis Medications

There are more than 100 different types of arthritic medical conditions. 

Prescription arthritis medications may be used commonly for rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and others.

Corticosteroids

Corticosteroids are often a first type of prescription medication for arthritis used primarily for symptom management 

They can be given orally and are also available as injections or infusions. 

Common side effects include reduced immunity, weight gain, blood sugar imbalances, and bone density loss.

Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)

Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) can slow the progression and damage caused by rheumatoid arthritis by inhibiting the cascade of inflammatory markers that lead to symptoms. 

Commonly prescribed DMARDs include hydroxychloroquine, methotrexate, and sulfasalazine. 

Side effects vary, but DMARDs increase the risk for immune suppression and infections.

Biologic therapy

Biologics are medications that treat arthritis.

Unlike DMARDs that target the entire immune system, biologic therapies target a specific part of the immune or inflammatory process. 

Biologics may be recommended for patients who do not respond to DMARDs.

There are many different types of biologics, including:

  • Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors
  • T-cell inhibitors
  • B-cell inhibitors
  • Interleukin-1 (IL-1) blockers
  • Interleukin-6 (IL-6) blockers
  • Interleukin-17 blockers

Some examples of biologic medications include:

  • Adalimumab (Humira)
  • Etanercept (Enbrel)
  • Abatacept (Orencia)
  • Infliximab (Remicade)
  • Rituximab (Rituxan)

Other prescription medications

Other analgesic pain medications may be prescribed for severe arthritis pain.. 

Up to 40% of patients with rheumatoid arthritis may be prescribed opioid painkillers at some point in their treatment, although pain management with these medications should be reserved as a last resort..

OTC Medications

Many people who have arthritis use over-the-counter (OTC) medications at some point. 

These can be effective, and when directed by your medical provider, some can be used in combination with prescription treatments for arthritis.

Pain relievers

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is an OTC analgesic pain reliever that can help alleviate discomfort from arthritis. 

Analgesics, like acetaminophen,  do not lower inflammation levels or treat the underlying mechanisms that cause arthritis pain. 

They only work to decrease pain sensations while the drug is in the body.

NSAIDs

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are pain relievers that work to reduce inflammation. 

Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) are commonly used OTC NSAIDs. 

Some NSAIDs are topical creams or gels that can be rubbed on affected joints.

There are also prescription NSAIDs, but higher dosages or long-term use can cause stomach irritation and may lead to increased risks for stroke or heart attack.

Topical creams

In addition to NSAID creams and gels, other types of ointments and topical creams can help address arthritis pain. 

These typically contain active ingredients like menthol or capsaicin. 

They work by disrupting pain signals that the joint is sending to the brain, which can lead to short-term relief.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Arthritis

Some people living with arthritis choose alternative medicine because they want to avoid side effects from traditional medications or because they had a bad reaction to a medication.

Not all alternative therapies have been studied or proven to be safe or effective. 

A medical provider can advise you on which ones may be best for you.

Possible complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) for arthritis include:

  • Acupuncture: Research shows that acupuncture can improve physical function for those with osteoarthritis, but it only has short-term pain-relief benefits. When acupuncture was compared with sham acupuncture (a placebo), acupuncture was found to have significant enough pain-relief benefits to consider it a viable therapeutic option. Fewer studies have been done on acupuncture for rheumatoid arthritis, but the studies that have been done show mixed results and potentially fewer benefits for RA.
  • Massage therapy: Research on massage therapy for osteoarthritis shows potential benefits at reducing pain and improving physical function. Other research notes that benefits are typically short-term, lasting less than six months.
  • Yoga: For people who have osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, yoga was beneficial for reducing pain, increasing physical function, and improving overall quality of life. Other studies have found no benefits for pain relief in RA.
  • Tai chi: The benefits of Tai chi in research are comparable to that of massage therapy or physical therapy. Tai chi was able to improve short-term mobility, pain, function, and overall quality of life. In rheumatoid arthritis, Tai chi improved physical function but did not alter pain or reduce disease activity.
  • Glucosamine and chondroitin: Glucosamine and chondroitin are frequently sold together in dietary supplements aimed at joint pain and arthritis. Large, reputable studies have found no benefits for pain relief in osteoarthritis. 
  • Fish oil: For rheumatoid arthritis, fish oil supplements have been shown to reduce inflammation, morning stiffness, and joint tenderness. People with RA who take fish oil may also be able to decrease reliance on NSAIDs for pain relief, according to other research.
  • Gamma linolenic acid (GLA): Gamma linolenic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid that is found in evening primrose oil, borage oil, and black currant. Large-scale studies have not confirmed benefits for GLA in rheumatoid arthritis, although some evidence suggests that it may be helpful in combination with other treatments.
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When to See a Medical Provider

If you have joint swelling or physical pain that is consistent with arthritis, see a medical provider. 

Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis have better long-term outcomes when they are treated early. 

If you experience chronic pain, even if you don’t think it could be arthritis, a healthcare provider can rule out causes and provide a plan of action.

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a healthcare provider in minutes. 

K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most popular medication for arthritis?
The most popular arthritis medication depends on the type that you have. Hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) and adalimumab (Humira) are common prescription medications for treating rheumatoid arthritis.
What medications do doctors prescribe for arthritis?
NSAIDs like ibuprofen (Advil) and analgesics like acetaminophen (Tylenol) are common prescriptions for arthritis pain. Some NSAIDs are available by prescription only, including diclofenac (Cambia, Voltaren), meloxicam (Mobic), and piroxicam (Feldene). The medication prescribed will depend on the symptoms and whether or not the disease needs to be treated to stop progression as well as to manage inflammation and pain.
What is the safest drug to take for arthritis?
Methotrexate, a type of disease-modifying antirheumatic drug (DMARD), is frequently used for treating arthritis. s. Nausea and vomiting are the most common side effects.
What is the newest drug for arthritis?
The newest drugs for arthritis management are janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors. They belong to the larger class of arthritis drugs known as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). JAKs work by blocking the activity of certain enzymes that trigger the release of immune compounds that cause inflammation. Rinvoq, Xeljanz, and Olumiant are JAK inhibitors.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Sabina Rebis, MD

Dr. Sabina Rebis is a board certified family medicine physician with over 5 years of primary care and urgent care experience.

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