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Osteoarthritis Medications

Osteoarthritis medications

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a condition that causes the cartilage between the bones in your joints to break down. This makes the bones rub against each other. It is one of the most common types of arthritis. It can be painful and result in a loss of join movement.

OA has no cure. Treatments are designed to maintain movement and to limit pain.

There are several different treatments options, including medications. Your doctor may recommend one or several different medications depending on the severity of your case. Your doctor will probably start with over-the-counter (OTC) medications before giving you prescriptions for stronger drugs.

Over-the-counter medications

There are several types of OTC options to relieve minor aches, pain, and swelling associated with osteoarthritis.


Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is an over-the-counter pain medicine (analgesic). It reduces pain, but not inflammation. It’s important that you don’t exceed the recommended dosage of acetaminophen or take the drug if you’re consuming large amounts of alcohol. Acetaminophen can severely damage your liver if used incorrectly. Often, prescription pain medications contain some acetaminophen, so it’s important to tell your doctor about all of the medications that you’re taking.


Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be effective against aches and pains associated with OA. NSAIDs do have potential risks for gastrointestinal bleeding and upset stomach, especially if taken over a long period of time. People under the age of 20 should avoid aspirin, to lower their risk of Reye’s syndrome. Examples of NSAIDs include:


There are a variety of creams and gels available that can help to relieve osteoarthritis pain. These may contain active ingredients such as menthol (Bengay, Stopain) or capsaicin (Capzasin, Zostrix), which is made from hot peppers. When you apply these ointments to aching joints, they can provide relief by scrambling the transmission of pain signals from the joint.

Prescription medications

If the symptoms of OA progress in severity and start to impact your quality of life, your doctor might prescribe something stronger to manage the pain.

Cortisone shots

These injections may help relieve pain and inflammation in arthritic joints. The medication in cortisone shots varies, but typically consists of a corticosteroid medication to reduce inflammation and pain, and a local anesthetic to reduce pain immediately.

These shots can be given right in a doctor’s office. Since there is concern that injections could increase the rate at which cartilage breaks down, many doctors limit the frequency of the shots per year.

Prescription NSAIDs

Prescription NSAIDs do the same thing that over-the-counter ones do, just in stronger doses. Some of these drugs may have lower risks of gastrointestinal issues, but as with all NSAIDs, there is a risk of heart disease. Some NSAIDs are also available in creams or gels that can be applied topically. This class of drugs includes:


Tramadol (Ultram) is a prescription analgesic. For some people, it may cause fewer side effects than NSAIDs. For others, however, tramadol can cause other problems, including nausea and constipation. Tramadol is often used in conjunction with other analgesics to provide stronger pain relief.


Stronger painkillers may be prescribed for osteoarthritis patients suffering from severe pain. These include:

Side effects of these drugs may include nausea, constipation, and sleepiness. There is also a risk of developing a dependence on these drugs.

Hyaluronic acid

For patients who fail to improve their OA pain with lifestyle changes or medications, injections of hyaluronic acid may be an option. There are a few side effects with these injections.

Content licensed from:

Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Medically reviewed on: Dec 12, 2016: William A Morrison, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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