Arthritis can cause severe pain in the joints. Doctors may recommend over-the-counter pain relief, topical applications, steroid injections, and prescription drugs based on the individual’s level of pain.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 58.5 million people in the United States have arthritis. The Arthritis Foundation adds that 1 in 4 people experience severe pain, giving their pain a seven or higher on a scale of 0–10.

Arthritis can cause permanent changes to the joint. Although it can affect all people, it occurs most commonly in older people and both men and women in the United States.

This article explores the symptoms of osteoarthritis, treatments, and alternative and home remedies for severe pain.

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis and causes the most severe pain.


The symptoms may come and go in milder cases, but some people experience pain for many years, which can worsen with time. Meanwhile, in more severe cases, the symptoms are continuous.

The main symptoms are:

Many people with severe arthritis have significant difficulty in performing daily activities since it also leads to inflammation commonly affecting the:

  • knees
  • hips
  • hands
  • spine

Learn more about other types of arthritis.

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Several medications can reduce joint pain and improve joint movement for people with severe arthritis. Treatment for severe pain is limited by what people can buy over the counter, so they often require a prescription from a doctor.

Below are some medications a doctor will prescribe to treat pain from severe arthritis.

Oral nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

NSAIDs are common medications that doctors prescribe to treat pain, stiffness, and inflammation that occur due to arthritis. NSAIDs inhibit the enzyme cyclooxygenase, thereby preventing the production of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are responsible for causing inflammation and pain in the body.

A few of the common NSAIDs that can treat severe arthritis include:

However, people must use these medications in controlled doses since they have several side effects.

The side effects include:

  • abdominal pain
  • nausea
  • gastrointestinal bleeding and ulcers

People who take high dosages of NSAIDs should consult their doctor about potential risks and ways to prevent them.

Topical NSAIDs

Several topical formulations, including creams, gels, lotions, and ointments, can help to reduce pain from arthritis. These medications contain topical NSAIDs such as diclofenac.

People can apply topical medications to the area of joint pain. These drugs target the knee or hand joints.

Doctors consider topical NSAIDs effective and generally safer, as there is no systemic exposure and typically involves a lower dose. Medical professionals use these drugs as the first-line treatment for osteoarthritis of the knee.

Learn more about NSAIDs here.


Doctors can inject medication into the joints to help to relieve severe joint pain from arthritis.

Some of the commonly used injectable treatments are:

  • Corticosteroids: Injecting corticosteroids in combination with a numbing agent directly into the arthritis-affected knee, hip, or hand joint.
  • Hyaluronic acid: This helps lubricate the joint and targets the knee, hand, or hip joint. Hyaluronic acid injections can be useful to relieve stiffness and pain.
  • Platelet-rich plasma: This technique involves collecting blood, separating platelets, and injecting those platelets into the joints. It targets the knee or hip arthritis-affected joints.
  • Stem cell injections: Medical professionals collect stem cells from the fat tissue or bone marrow, followed by their concentration. Doctors inject these cells into the painful joints. It helps initiate tissue regeneration in the joint and targets hip or knee joints.

Learn more about steroid injections here.


Doctors commonly prescribe opioids when all the other pain relievers do not work. They help in the short-term management of severe arthritis pain and mainly target the knee or hip joints.

Some of the commonly used opioid medications are:

A doctor will explain the benefits and possible risks of opiods and suggest alternatives if necessary. The serious risks include overdose and addiction.

Opioids may also cause side effects, including:

A doctor will establish goals and guidelines for the safe use of opioids for pain management.

Learn more about opioids here.

Some of the alternative treatments for arthritis include:

  • Physical therapy: This therapy can help increase the strength of the muscles, improve flexibility, and reduce pain. Occupational therapy is also useful in helping people perform their daily activities.
  • Yoga: This can help improve flexibility and muscle strength and strengthen movements.
  • Acupuncture: This procedure involves the insertion of small needles at specific points on the body to aid pain relief and improve blood flow.
  • Massage: This helps improve muscle blood flow, improving stiffness and joint pain.
  • Tai chi: This alternative treatment involves gentle flowing movements, meditation, and deep breathing. It can help reduce joint pain and improve a person’s range of motion.
  • Surgery: Doctors only recommend surgery in severe cases. Surgery either involves repair of the joint through small cuts or replacement of the joint.

Learn more about at-home treatments for arthritis here.

At-home therapies to improve severe arthritis include:

  • exercising regularly to strengthen muscles and improve the joint flexibility
  • taking vitamin supplements such as:
  • following a balanced diet rich in fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole foods
  • using hot and cold compresses to reduce joint pain and inflammation

Doctors recommend that adults with arthritis perform moderate physical exercise for at least 150 minutes per week.

Learn more about home remedies for arthritis here.

Here are some frequently asked questions about arthritis medication.

What is the most effective medication for arthritis?

The most effective medication for arthritis may differ for each person and the type of arthritis. For osteoarthritis, a doctor may recommend NSAIDs. For rheumatoid arthritis, a person may need to take disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs).

What is the best arthritis drug with the least side effects?

Any medication has the potential to cause side effects. However, topical NSAIDs might be the safest option for some people.

Arthritis is an inflammation of one or many joints of the body. It can result in pain and damage to the joint.

People with severe cases of arthritis should talk with their doctor about prescription treatment. It is also a good idea to adopt self-care approaches and make lifestyle changes to help relieve pain.