Arthritis Over-The-Counter Medications

Everyday arthritis pain

For over 32.5 million Americans living with osteoarthritis (OA), pain can be an everyday occurrence. Damaged joints can make every movement — from bending to lifting — achy and uncomfortable.

Treatment aims to:

  • slow the progression of OA
  • manage symptoms
  • help keep you mobile

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are one of the many ways of managing pain and discomfort, especially in the early stages.

Let’s take a look at what they are and how they work.


According to the American College of Rheumatology and the Arthritis Foundation (ACR/AF), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are one of the most effective OTC remedies for managing osteoarthritis pain.

NSAIDs can help reduce both pain and inflammation.

Options include:

  • ibuprofen (Motrin) tablets for all types of OA
  • creams and ointments containing NSAIDs for OA of the knee and hand

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), the following NSAIDs may help people with OA:

  • ibuprofen (Motrin)
  • naproxen (Aleve)
  • aspirin
  • nabumetone (Refalen)
How NSAIDs work

NSAIDs work by reducing your body’s production of substances called prostaglandins, which cause pain and inflammation in the body.

By doing this, they:

  • reduce pain
  • lower inflammation and swelling in your joints
NSAID side effects and risks

Prostaglandins do more than cause pain. They also help protect the lining of your stomach from damage by harsh stomach acids.

When NSAIDs reduce prostaglandins in your body, they can leave your stomach vulnerable to acids.

This can lead to:

  • stomach upset
  • ulcers
  • gastrointestinal bleeding

Other possible side effects of NSAIDs include:

  • hives
  • wheezing, which may be dangerous if you have asthma
  • changes to kidney function
  • a rash

Learn more

NSAIDs also reduce blood clotting. People often take aspirin, for example, as a blood thinner, if they have a high risk for a heart attack.

However, thinning the blood too much means there’s a higher risk of bleeding and bruising.

You should tell your doctor if you have:

  • high blood pressure
  • asthma
  • a history of kidney or liver disease
  • a history of ulcers

Always make sure your doctor knows about any other medications you’re taking, as drugs can interact with each other, leading to further adverse effects and complications.


Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is another OTC pain relief medication that can help manage arthritis discomfort.

This drug works by reducing the feeling of pain in the brain. It can reduce pain, but it won’t decrease joint inflammation. For this reason, the ACR/AF only recommend it if you can’t use NSAIDs.

Acetaminophen can have some negative effects:

  • In rare cases, it can trigger a severe skin reaction.
  • Taking large amounts over time or using it with too much alcohol can lead to liver damage.

However, it is suitable for use during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.

Always follow your doctor’s instructions regarding when to take a medication and how much to use.

If you’re also taking other medications, be sure to check the label to see if they contain acetaminophen.

Many medications do, and taking them together with acetaminophen could lead to:

  • an overdose
  • liver damage
  • other complications

Topical pain relievers

Topical pain relievers are treatments that you can apply to the skin.

Topical medications work to dull pain. They also often make the skin feel hot or cold. Because topical treatments don’t reach the whole body, they have fewer side effects than oral medications.

Several OTC topical creams, sprays, and gel pain relievers are available to help relieve arthritis pain.

Their ingredients can include:

  • NSAIDs, the same active medications as the oral versions
  • capsaicin, the substance that makes chili peppers hot

According to the ACR/AF, both treatments are likely to benefit people with OA of the knee, and topical NSAIDs may be effective for OA of the hand.

However, they do not recommend using capsaicin for OA of the hand, as there’s less evidence that it’ll help. There’s also a higher risk of touching the eyes, leading to intense discomfort.

Researchers have not yet confirmed that topical treatments can help relieve OA of the hip.

Remember to wash your hands after applying capsaicin, as it can cause a burning sensation if it spreads to another part of the body, especially the eyes and other sensitive parts.

Supplements for arthritis pain

Some people use herbs and supplements to treat OA pain, such as:

  • vitamin D
  • fish oils
  • glucosamine

However, experts don’t recommend these, as there’s not enough evidence to show that they work, and some may interact with other drugs or cause negative effects.

In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate these products, so you can’t be sure exactly what they contain.

If you’re thinking about trying a supplement, talk to your doctor first.

How can diet help manage OA of the knee?

Other options

Medications are not the only nonprescription osteoarthritis treatment:

Non-drug options include:

  • supports and braces for various types of joint
  • kinesio tape, a kind of dressing that supports a joint while allowing it to move
  • walking canes and walking frames to help with balance and mobility
  • heat and cold pads to manage pain and inflammation

Your doctor can advise you on non-drug options that may help.

Trial and error

Everyone’s experience of living with osteoarthritis is different, and not everyone responds to each drug in the same way. You may not find relief from the first arthritis medication you try.

If you’re taking an NSAID or other OTC pain reliever and it isn’t helping, talk to your doctor.

They may suggest:

  • switching to another type of drug
  • changing the dose
  • using prescription medication

They can also advise you on other treatment options, such as:

  • weight management
  • exercising
  • stretching
  • relaxation strategies

Your doctor will work with you to find a treatment plan that can help ease your OA pain and get you moving again.

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