It’s been estimated that about one in three Americans has some form of arthritis or joint pain. With approximately 70 million people in the United States affected by the condition, the types of medications used to treat its various forms span from over-the-counter medications to numerous prescription drugs. Topical pain relievers can be helpful for people with arthritis that occurs in just a few joints with minimal pain. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several topical products, including diclofenac sodium (Voltaren®, Pennsaid®). Topicals contain the prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) diclofenac for the treatment of osteoarthritis (OA) in joints close to the skin's surface, such as in the hands and knees.

Over-the-counter NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) and naproxen (Aleve®, Naprosyn®), are the most commonly used class of painkillers that arthritis patients rely on. Acetaminophen (Tylenol®) is also frequently used for pain relief.

Narcotic pain relievers are available by prescription only and may be recommended for those with more severe pain. Often combined with acetaminophen or NSAIDs, narcotic pain medications do not relieve joint inflammation and can be habit-forming, in addition to causing constipation, urinary problems and sedation. Your doctor may also recommend using an antidepressant to help treat chronic pain.

An additional route to pain relief is through powerful anti-inflammatory drugs known as steroids. While effective, steroids have many side effects when taken as a pill for an extended period of time. To avoid complications, steroids can be injected directly into the affected joint. An alternative pain relief includes several versions of hyaluronan injections, also called viscosupplementation. Viscosupplementation involves injecting hyaluronan into the joint and may be used to treat knee OA.

Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are often used to treat forms of inflammatory arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis or ankylosing spondylitis. DMARDs function by interfering with or suppressing the immune system that attacks the joints. Another option for treatment of inflammatory arthritis with the same function as DMARDs is biologic response modifiers (biologics), which are administered by intravenous (by vein) infusion or by an injection.

The type of arthritis and pain experienced will help your doctor determine the most effective type of medication for your condition.

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