Using medications may help relieve joint pain. Experts often recommend the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) as the first line of treatment.
Joint pain, swelling, and stiffness are the most common symptoms of arthritis, which affects about
Medications for joint pain are available over the counter (OTC) and via prescription. They include oral tablets, topical gels, liquids, patches, and injectable formulations.
OTC options are available at most stores and can effectively relieve joint pain. Prescription medications are an option when OTC medications are ineffective or when a person has particular health considerations.
This article reviews some medications that doctors recommend for joint pain.
|Generic name||Brand name||Prescription/OTC||Dose||Side effects|
|naproxen||Aleve, Anaprox||OTC and prescription||• fast-acting forms: 220 mg (OTC); higher strength fast-acting forms are prescription|
• extended release: 375, 500, and 750 mg (prescription)
• delayed release: 375 and 500 mg (prescription)
• excessive thirst
• difficulty sleeping
• burning or tingling in the limbs
• cold symptoms
• ringing in the ears
• hearing problems
|ibuprofen||Advil, Motrin||OTC and prescription||200 mg tablets or liquid formulations (OTC) or|
400–800 mg (prescription) up to 3 times per day
• gas or bloating
• ringing in the ears
|acetaminophen||Tylenol||OTC||• tablets: 325–500 mg|
• oral solution: 160 mg/5 mL
• chewable tablets: 80–160 mg
|diclofenac topical||• Voltaren Arthritis Pain|
|OTC and prescription||• diclofenac sodium 1% gel: 2 g 4 times per day, no more than 8 g (OTC)|
• diclofenac epolamine 1.3%: 1 patch twice per day (prescription)
• diclofenac sodium 2% liquid: 2 pumps (40 mg) up to twice per day (prescription)
• diclofenac sodium 1.5% liquid: 40 drops twice per day (prescription)
|• skin irritation and inflammation|
• stomach pain
• numbness, burning, or tingling in the limbs, hands, or feet
|prescription||3–4 injections per year at a doctor’s office||• injection site reaction|
• worsening pain for 24 hours
|tramadol||ConZip, Ultram||prescription||no common dose for lower back pain||• sleepiness|
• involuntary shaking
• muscle tightness
• mood changes
• dry mouth
The first-line treatment for joint pain may vary depending on the underlying condition, a doctor’s experience, and individual health considerations.
For osteoarthritis (OA) pain, the Arthritis Foundation (AF) notes that NSAIDs are the most effective treatment for joint pain, as they block enzymes that cause pain and swelling. NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, are available as patches, topical gels, prescription liquids, and tablets.
The AF cautions that long-term use of NSAIDs can damage the stomach lining and cause gastrointestinal bleeding. These medications can also increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart failure, so a person should not use them for longer than a doctor recommends.
If people cannot take NSAIDs, they can try taking acetaminophen to reduce pain. However, according to the AF, recent research has concluded that acetaminophen has little effect on OA pain. Still, it may help some people.
A doctor may recommend two main forms of OTC medication for joint pain: NSAIDs and acetaminophen.
Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
Ibuprofen is a type of NSAID. NSAIDs work by non-selectively blocking cyclooxygenase (COX) 1 and 2. Blocking these chemicals can reduce inflammation, pain, and fever.
The AF recommends NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, as a first-line treatment for joint pain.
Ibuprofen comes in several forms, in doses of
- gas or bloating
- ringing in the ears
Ibuprofen can cause other side effects that may be serious. If someone feels unwell or experiences unusual symptoms, they should discontinue using ibuprofen and contact a doctor immediately.
Naproxen is another NSAID and is available under the brand name Aleve. It works the same way as ibuprofen, by blocking COX 1 and 2 and thereby reducing fever, pain, and inflammation.
Naproxen is available in several forms,
- extended-release tablets: 375, 500, and 750 mg
- delayed-release tablets: 375 mg and 500 mg
- fast-acting tablets: 220–550 mg
- capsule: 220 mg
- oral solution: 25 mg/mL
The dosage a doctor recommends
Naproxen may cause side effects. If the following symptoms are severe or persist, a person should contact a doctor:
- excessive thirst
- difficulty sleeping
- burning or tingling in the limbs
- cold symptoms
- ringing in the ears
- hearing problems
Naproxen can cause side effects that may be serious. If someone feels unwell or experiences unusual symptoms, they should discontinue using naproxen and contact a doctor immediately.
Diclofenac is available in oral and topical forms. It is the only topical NSAID currently available in the U.S.
Diclofenac gel, liquid, and patches can provide pain relief to the affected joint by applying it directly to the skin.
Topical NSAIDs may not work well for everyone, with an effectiveness rate of about 10%. People who tend to benefit from using them are those who:
- experience side effects from oral NSAIDs
- have arthritis in smaller joints
- have a risk of heart disease or other factors affecting the heart
- are over 65
The available forms of topical NSAIDs include:
- diclofenac sodium 1% gel (Voltaren): 2 g dose four times per day, no more than 8 g
- diclofenac epolamine 1.3% patch (Flector): 1 patch twice per day
- diclofenac sodium 2% liquid (Pennsaid): 2 pumps (40 mg) up to twice per day
- diclofenac sodium 1.5% liquid (Pennsaid): 40 drops twice per day
Diclofenac may cause side effects. If the following symptoms are severe or persist, a person should contact a doctor:
- gas or bloating
- ringing in the ears
Acetaminophen is available under multiple brand names, such as Tylenol and Actamin. It can help reduce pain by
Acetaminophen is suitable for adults and children, but a caregiver should check with a doctor before giving children any medication.
Dosing can vary based on form. Adult doses come in 325–500 mg tablets. Children’s doses are available as:
- oral solution: 160 mg/5 mL
- chewable tablets: 80–160 mg
Common side effects from acetaminophen
Acetaminophen can cause other side effects that may be serious. If someone feels unwell or experiences unusual symptoms, they should discontinue using acetaminophen and contact a doctor immediately.
In some cases, a doctor may prescribe pain medication to help with joint pain if OTC options are not working well or if a person’s pain is severe. Prescription-strength medications can be beneficial but tend to have a higher risk of negative side effects.
Tramadol (ConZip, Ultram)
Tramadol, available under the brand names ConZip and Ultram, is a prescription medication that helps block pain receptors in the brain.
- do not tolerate NSAIDs
- are not good candidates for surgical interventions
- do not respond to other therapies
Tramadol may cause side effects. If the following symptoms are severe or persist, a person should contact a doctor:
- involuntary shaking
- muscle tightness
- mood changes
- dry mouth
Corticosteroid injections can help reduce inflammation and pain. A healthcare professional will inject a corticosteroid and numbing agent directly into an affected joint. In some cases, they may remove, or “aspirate,” fluid from the joint before injecting the corticosteroid.
Doctors often recommend corticosteroid injections for RA and less commonly recommend them for OA. These injections may benefit people who are experiencing severe pain and those who do not respond to other pain medications.
A person will typically require 3–4 injections per year. Each injection can provide several months of relief, but after the first dose the medication may not be as effective or work as quickly.
An advantage of injected steroids is that, because the doses are low, people rarely experience side effects. The most common side effects are injection site pain, a worsening of symptoms for 24 hours, and possible infection. Many of the side effects that oral steroids can cause, such as weight gain, occur very rarely from injections.
However, corticosteroids may cause side effects. If the following symptoms are severe or persist, a person should contact a doctor:
- delayed wound healing
- thin, fragile, or dry skin
- purple or red blotches or lines under the skin
- skin indentations at the injection site
- increased body fat or movement of fat to different areas of the body
- trouble sleeping
- unusual happiness
- extreme mood and personality changes
- increased sweating
- muscle weakness
- joint pain
- irregular or absent menstruation
- increased appetite
Steroid injections can cause side effects that may be serious. If someone feels unwell or experiences unusual symptoms, they should contact a doctor immediately.
Although doctors most often prescribe corticosteroid injections, they may also recommend injections of the following substances:
- hyaluronic acid
- a natural irritant, often a sugar solution, in a procedure called prolotherapy
- platelet-rich plasma
- autologous conditioned serum
- stem cells
Medication costs can add up quickly, particularly when a person is taking medication for long periods. While insurance may help pay for prescriptions, it often does not help with OTC medications.
The following organizations may be able to assist people in paying for medications:
|Organization||What they do||Phone number|
|ConnectiveRx||aerie savings card||1-844-807-9706|
|Medicare||prescription drug plans||1-800-633-4227|
|Eagle Pharmacy (EyeRx Direct)||patient assistance programs||1-844-813-3864|
|PAN Foundation||patient assistance programs||1-866-316-7263|
|BlinkHealth||prescription drug discounts||1-833-844-9621|
|NeedyMeds||patient assistance programs||1-800-503-6897|
|RxHope||patient assistance programs||—|
|Medicine assistance tool||prescription assistance service||571-350-8643|
|PharmacyChecker||prescription drug price comparison||—|
|RxOutreach||patient assistance programs||1-888-796-1234|
While some medications can provide pain relief, a person may find it helpful to supplement with additional therapies such as:
- tai chi, yoga, and other forms of gentle exercise
- physical therapy
- transcutaneous electrical stimulation
- heat and cold therapy
People may also benefit from reaching or maintaining a moderate weight, which may help relieve pressure on the joints.
Several medications can help with joint pain. Many doctors recommend OTC NSAIDs as a first-line therapy. These are available in oral and topical forms. Some doctors may recommend acetaminophen or steroid injections.
All medications can cause side effects, which a person should be aware of before taking the medication. If side effects are severe and persistent, a person should ask their doctor about switching medication or changing their dose.
People can also try various home remedies to reduce their arthritis symptoms, such as gentle exercise, massage, and heat and cold therapy.