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OTC Pain Relievers for Your Osteoarthritis

Finding Pain Relief for Osteoarthritis

This article is for people who have osteoarthritis (OA), as well as care partners and others who want to learn more about pain relief options. The goal is to understand how over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers can help manage OA pain.

You'll explore:

  • The need for pain relief

  • OTC medicines, like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), acetaminophen, and naproxen

  • How to make an informed choice when choosing an OTC pain reliever

  • How to discuss treatment goals, preferences, and options with your healthcare provider

  • Questions to ask your healthcare provider about how to relieve your OA pain

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What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a condition that damages or destroys the cartilage, which pads joints and eases the movement of the bones that make up the joints.

When you lose cartilage, inflammation and changes to the bone closest to the joint can cause pain, stiffness, and trouble moving the joint easily.

Any joint can be affected by OA, but OA is most common in the hands, knees, hips, and spine.

How Does OA Treatment Begin?

Osteoarthritis is a long-term (chronic) disease. While there is no cure, there are things you can do to help manage symptoms and improve your quality of life.

As a start, your doctor may recommend:

  • Stopping activities that cause pain

  • Exercises to strengthen the muscles that support joints affected by OA

  • Weight loss, if necessary, to take the stress off of arthritic joints

What If I Still Feel Pain From OA?

You might be doing all you can to get relief -- eating well, getting good-quality sleep, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight -- but still struggling with OA pain.

In this case, your healthcare provider may recommend an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine so you can get relief as you continue your healthy lifestyle.

What OTC Medicines Can I Take for OA Pain?

There are several safe and effective OTC medicines for OA pain. Each has benefits and potential side effects, which are important to know.

OTC medicines for OA pain include:

  • Analgesics, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®)

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin (Bayer Aspirin), ibuprofen (Motrin®, Advil®), and naproxen (Aleve®)

If you and your doctor have decided that an OTC medicine could help manage your pain, your doctor will most likely suggest beginning with a low dose of the medicine.

It is important to take the medicine as directed. Side effects happen more often when the directions are not followed.

Acetaminophen for OA Pain

Acetaminophen may be the first medicine your doctor recommends for you.

Acetaminophen is safe when taken as directed. To ensure safety:

  • Read the drug label and package insert

  • Many OTC pain relief products contain acetaminophen, and the maximum dose per 24 hours of acetaminophen in all products you are taking is 4000 mg

  • If you are taking other medicines that contain acetaminophen, discuss with your doctor whether you should also take acetaminophen

  • Limit alcoholic drinks to 2 per day

NSAIDs for OA Pain

Doctors may recommend NSAIDs when acetaminophen doesn't work for pain relief.

While NSAIDS might be more effective than acetaminophen, they also have more side effects, including a higher risk for:

  • Stomach irritation or stomach ulcer

  • Kidney disease

  • High blood pressure

  • Heart attack (except for aspirin)

  • Stroke

If you have problems with your stomach while taking an NSAID, your doctor may recommend you take a medicine called a proton-pump inhibitor.

Talking with Your Healthcare Provider

The causes of OA aren't fully understood. While there is no cure, treatments can help you manage the condition.

Working with your healthcare provider to create a plan is a two-way street. Answer their questions as best you can, even if you feel uncomfortable with the subject. Anything you tell your doctor can help with your treatment.

Ask every question you need to. And once you ask a question, make sure you understand the answer. Ask for clarification if you don't understand. Taking notes may help you with the conversation.

This discussion will help you and your provider create a long-term plan together for living with OA. The plan should be based on:

  • The severity of your pain and stiffness

  • Which joints are affected

  • How much difficulty you are having with daily activities

  • Your preferences

What Information Will Help My Doctor?

You want to give your doctor an accurate picture of the pain you experience. Consider making notes about it. Even if it's just for a week, things you should record include:

  • What time of day your joint(s) hurt(s)

  • When the pain first occurred and whether there is any history of an injury

  • What's happening when the pain starts; what makes it better, and what makes it worse

  • What the pain feels like during each episode

  • Where the pain is: in or around your joint

  • How long pain lasts

  • What, if anything, you do to treat it yourself, and how effective those treatments are

Questions You Can Ask About Your OA Pain

To understand more about the OA pain you experience, you may want to ask your healthcare provider:

  • Whether something else could be causing your pain

  • What types of tests should you undergo

  • What treatments might help reduce your pain

  • What drugs you can take if you have stomach upset when you take pain relievers

  • Whether a prescription medicine might be a better choice for you

  • Whether stretching and flexing the joint might help

  • Exercises you could try

  • Whether you should see a physical therapist or other healthcare provider

  • What you can do to prevent the condition from getting worse

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Authors and Disclosures


Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD

Senior Scientific Director, Medscape LLC

Disclosure: Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


Donald Hannaford

Medical Writer, Rumson, NJ

Disclosure: Donald Hannaford has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Content Reviewer

Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD

Senior Scientific Director, Medscape LLC

Disclosure: Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


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