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Managing Arthritis Pain: Treatment, Medications, and More

There are many treatments and medications available to manage arthritis pain and alleviate the symptoms that disrupt your everyday activities.

Arthritis is a fairly common condition. At least one in six US adults reports some form of arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And that number is projected to increase by 2040, with one in every four US adults receiving an arthritis diagnosis.

Fortunately, it’s possible to manage your arthritis pain through treatments such as medication, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes.

What causes Arthritis?

Arthritis pain stems from soft tissue and bone structure damage in a single joint or in multiple joints. Several different types of arthritis exist. However, the most common cause of arthritis includes osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Osteoarthritis results from the repetitive wear and tear of joints over time and generally occurs in elderly patients or younger patients with injuries or poor lifestyle habits.

With rheumatoid arthritis, the body’s immune system attacks the joints. This auto-immune condition occurs primarily in female patients and with people who have a family history of RA.

While the underlying causes of OA and RA vary greatly, they both produce similar symptoms of pain, swelling, and stiffness leading to a decreased range of motion. If left untreated, these conditions can cause limb deformities and impaired mobility.

What are the treatment options for managing arthritis pain?

Arthritis can be treated in three different ways:

  • Medications
  • Physical therapy, exercise, and lifestyle
  • Surgery

Certain factors help determine which treatment options to take. Most importantly, the type of arthritis dictates which medications will be prescribed. Additionally, your physician will take into account your individual health needs and symptoms affecting other body organs. Finally, the severity of the pain may indicate a need for more invasive procedures such as surgery.

Medications for Arthritis

Medications vary in the treatment of arthritis and primarily depend on the type of arthritis. For example, patients with osteoarthritis will be prescribed a vastly different combination of medications than those diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

The most commonly used medications for arthritis fall into one of the following categories:

  • NSAIDs
  • Counterirritants
  • Corticosteroids
  • DMARDs


Physicians often recommend and prescribe NSAIDs to reduce inflammation and alleviate arthritic pain. Most people can buy NSAIDs over the counter. Familiar choices include ibuprofen, sold as name brands Advil or Motrin IB, and naproxen sodium, most commonly sold as Aleve.

Some side effects of NSAIDs include stomach irritation. Stronger versions of this medication may be prescribed by your doctor if you have a lower risk of heart attack or stroke.

In addition to pill form, NSAIDs come in creams or gels that can be rubbed on painful joints for more direct relief.  


Counterirritants come in creams that you rub into your affected joints. These ointments contain menthol or capsaicin, which is the same ingredient that creates the heat and spiciness in hot peppers. This compound has been found to interfere with pain signals to your brain, thus providing much-needed relief.


Your physician may prescribe a corticosteroid such as prednisone. This type of medication comes in pill form or can be administered as an injection directly into the joint.

Corticosteroids may have side effects, including bone thinning, unintentional weight gain, and the potential to cause diabetes.


Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, often referred to as DMARDs, are primarily used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. These medications work to regulate the immune response by slowing the progression of RA and preventing damage in joints and other tissues. DMARDs are prescribed from one of three categories, conventional, biologic agents, and targeted synthetic therapies.

What are arthritis medications for Osteoarthritis (OA)?

When treating your osteoarthritis, or OA, your doctor may prescribe:

  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Analgesic medications
  • Steroid injections
  • Viscosupplementation

Since osteoarthritis, or OA, is caused by injury earned over time within a joint, the most common symptoms include inflammation and pain. Your physician may recommend you take an anti-inflammatory, such as an NSAID. For more severe discomfort, you may be prescribed analgesic medications or painkillers.

Beyond oral medications, injections directly into the joint may help to reduce the pain and inflammation. Your doctor may administer a steroid injection or a viscosupplementation treatment for OA. Viscosupplementation is commonly used for the treatment of arthritis in your knee.

What are arthritis medications for Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)?

If you’re diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, also known as RA, your doctor may take a different approach to your medication.

Common medications for treating rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Corticosteroids
  • Monoclonal antibodies
  • DMARDs  

The underlying cause of rheumatoid arthritis is based on your body’s immune system and its response. Therefore, the medications associated with treating RA vary greatly from those for OA.

The most common medications for rheumatoid arthritis include corticosteroids, monoclonal antibodies, and DMARDs. Corticosteroids work fast to lower inflammation resulting in reduced pain, redness, and swelling in the joints. Monoclonal antibodies (anti-NGFs) are effective in reducing joint pain and improving physical function. DMARDs address the body’s immune response to delay how quickly RA progresses while protecting joints from further damage.

How can I stop my arthritis?

Beyond medication, you can take steps each day to reduce your risk of arthritis. Exercise and a healthy lifestyle can go far in preventing the onset of arthritis. Additionally, physical therapy can improve symptoms and reduce pain.

Physical Therapy

Certain exercises performed under the care of a physical therapist can be helpful in reducing the pain, inflammation, and stiffness associated with arthritis, particularly osteoarthritis. These exercises work to broaden the range of motion of the affected joints. Additionally, strengthening the muscles surrounding the joint can aid in alleviating some arthritis symptoms. Splits or braces may be used to support joints and prevent further injury.  


Daily exercise and stretching can help prevent and reduce arthritic symptoms. Exercise can help keep you at a healthy weight which in turn puts less pressure on weight-bearing joints such as your knees and hips.

Healthy Lifestyle

In addition to a regular exercise routine, proper nutrition is vital for maintaining a healthy weight and for proper blood sugar levels. Healthy food choices can help reduce inflammation. For example, eating fish twice a week provides nutritional components such as omega fatty acids that keep joints in top condition.  

Surgery for Arthritis Treatment

If medication, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes are not enough to manage your arthritis pain, your physician may recommend surgery.

Surgical procedures for arthritis include:

  • Joint repair
  • Joint replacement
  • Joint fusion

Joint repair

Joint repair can be performed arthroscopically. Through tiny incisions at the joint, this procedure smooths and realigns the surfaces of the joint. The intended result provides reduced pain and improved mobility.

Joint replacement

When a joint is damaged beyond repair and not responding to medication or therapy, it may need to be replaced with an artificial one. Joints at the hips and knees are the most common candidates for replacement surgery.

Joint fusion

Used primarily in the wrist, ankle, and fingers, joint fusion removes the ends of two bones in order to lock them together into one rigid unit. In this case, the joint no longer exists, which alleviates the recurring area of pain.

How do doctors test for arthritis?

Doctors test for arthritis using three methods

  • Observation
  • Laboratory Tests
  • Imaging


At your first appointment for an evaluation for arthritis, your doctor will observe your joint or joints affected for signs of inflammation, redness, and warmth to the touch. Your doctor will also request you move your joints to check for signs of stiffness and loss of mobility.  

Laboratory tests

Often laboratory tests can detect the type of arthritis you have by analyzing bodily fluids, including blood, urine, and joint fluid. To retrieve joint fluid, your doctor will first clean and numb the area. A needle is then inserted into the joint for the withdrawal of the fluid.


The most common types of imaging used for diagnosing arthritis are:

  • X-rays
  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • Ultrasound

X-rays help reveal damage around joints. Although early arthritic damage is difficult to determine, doctors can see whether the joint has sustained cartilage damage, bone injury, or the appearance of bone spurs.

A CT scan offers vital information about the bone and soft tissues surrounding the affected joint. Scans discover how much inflammation and damage is occurring at the joint. Multiple scans spread out over intervals of time can help track and monitor progression.

For a more complete and detailed evaluation of your joint, your doctor may request an MRI. These cross-sectional images offer a closer look at the damage to soft tissues such as ligaments, tendons, and cartilage.

Ultrasounds provide a view of how soft tissues, cartilage, and fluid structures have been affected by arthritis. Additionally, ultrasound may be necessary for guiding a needle for fluid removal or injections of medicine.

Learn about managing your arthritis pain with a consultation

Lone Star Pain and Spine Institute is a team of pain specialists committed to providing the highest quality of care through the latest minimally invasive therapies and a wide range of individualized pain management solutions. Book a consultation at our San Marcos or New Braunfels locations and learn how you can live your life pain-free.

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