According to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 50 million American
adults (one in five) have been diagnosed with arthritis. Arthritis is a major
cause of disability in the United States. Left untreated, it can cause:
- chronic pain
- limb deformities
- impaired range of motion
These symptoms can seriously
disrupt everyday life. Learning how to live with arthritis can be difficult.
However, it is usually possible to manage the symptoms and improve your quality
Treatments for arthritis will
- the type of arthritis
- your personal health needs
- severity of pain
- other symptoms associated with the arthritis
How Lifestyle Affects Arthritis Pain
Living a healthy life might help to reduce your risk of
developing certain types of arthritis. It can also reduce the severity of your
symptoms. For example, being overweight or obese increases the pressure on your
joints. It may also contribute to generalized inflammation that can increase
Healthy lifestyle changes are often
the first steps in managing arthritis symptoms. You should try to:
- improve your sleep
- exercise regularly
- eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet
Exercise may be particularly useful
in helping with arthritis symptoms. Low-impact exercise has been shown to:
- improve joint mobility
- relieve stiffness
- reduce pain and fatigue
- strengthen muscles and bones
“Staying in motion actually helps to keep pain away,”
says Dr. Moshe Lewis, MD, MPH. Exercise, such as brisk walking, is critical in
treating pain and stiffness associated with arthritis. It extends the life of
Cold/Heat Treatment for Arthritis Pain
Applying cold and heat to inflamed joints may help with
arthritis pain, although research is inconsistent.
Ice helps to restrict blood vessels. This reduces fluid
in the tissue and decreases swelling and pain. Wrap ice in a towel and apply to
the aching area for up to 20 minutes. You can ice your joints several times a
Heat treatments can be applied in the same way. Use a
hot water bottle or heating pad and apply it to the swelling. Heat opens the
blood vessels and increases circulation. This brings nutrients and proteins essential
to repairing the compromised tissue.
Heat and ice treatments can be used in combination. Talk
to your doctor about what might work best for you.
Over-the-Counter Medication for Arthritis Pain
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications can help with minor pain
and swelling associated with arthritis.
The most common types of OTC pain
relievers are acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
(NSAIDs). Types of NSAIDs include:
- aspirin (Bayer Asprin)
- ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Nuprin)
- naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn)
Acetaminophen only relieves pain. NSAIDs relieve pain
and can also reduce the swelling associated with certain types of arthritis.
Topical creams can also help treat arthritis symptoms. These
creams are applied directly to painful areas. They may contain active
ingredients such as menthol (Bengay, Stopain) or capsaicin (Capzasin, Zostrix).
Prescription Medications for Arthritis Treatment
Sometimes, OTC painkillers are not strong enough to
treat your arthritis pain. If this is the case, your doctor may suggest
Prescription NSAIDs work to reduce
swelling and pain, although they have not been definitively proven more
effective than OTC NSAIDs for this purpose. This class of drugs includes:
- celecoxib (Celebrex)
- piroxicam (Feldene),
- nabumetone (Relafen)
- prescription-strength ibuprofen and naproxen
Tramadol (Ultram) is a prescription painkiller. It may
cause fewer side effects than NSAIDs.
While tramadol is not exactly a narcotic, it still has significant
potential for abuse like narcotics.
Strong painkillers can provide
relief from severe pain. These include:
- meperidine (Demerol)
- oxycodone (OxyContin)
- propoxyphene (Darvon)
While these medications will reduce the pain symptoms of
arthritis, they will not modify the course of the disease. They can also be
addictive and should be used with caution.
Disease Modifying Drugs
A class of medications known as disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs
(DMARDs) can be used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other
inflammatory-types of arthritis. Unlike NSAIDs and painkillers, these drugs can
actually change the course of your disease. However, DMARDS work more slowly
than painkillers. It can take weeks or months to see an improvement.
Examples of DMARDs include:
- azathioprine (Imuran)
- biologics (Actemra)
- cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan)
- cyclosporine (Neoral)
- hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil)
- methotrexate (Rheumatrex)
TNF-alpha inhibitors are a subtype of DMARDs. They also can modify the
course of rheumatoid arthritis. These include:
- etanercept (Enbrel)
- infliximab (Remicade)
- adalimumab (Humira)
- certolizumab pegol (Cimzia),
Each DMARD has its own sets of side
effects. Discuss them with your doctor before deciding on a treatment.
These injections use a corticosteroid to reduce swelling.
They can relieve pain in arthritic joints, but they can also accelerate bone
loss if used repeatedly.
Trigger Point Injections
Injections can be used to relieve
pain in areas of muscle that contain “trigger points.” Trigger points occur
when muscles bind together and don’t relax. Trigger point injections can be
used to treat muscle pain in the arms, legs, or back.
Trigger point injections contain an
aesthetic, and sometimes a steroid. They often provide relief for several weeks
or months at a time. However, some research suggests these injections may be no
more effective than simply sticking a needle into the trigger point.
Physical Therapy for Arthritis Pain
Physical therapy can help:
- improve muscle strength
- increase the range of motion of joints
- reduce pain
A physical therapist can also help
you develop an exercise regimen that will fit your needs. In addition, he or she can help you find
supportive devices such as splints, braces, or shoe inserts.
These devices can provide support to weakened joints.
They can also take pressure off injured bones and reduce overall pain.
Surgery for Arthritis Pain
Severe cases of arthritis may
require surgery to replace or repair damaged joints. Types of surgery used to
treat arthritis include:
- joint replacement
- bone realignment
- bone fusion
- arthroscopic surgery
Alternative Treatments for Arthritis
Several types of complementary therapy may help with arthritis
pain. The efficacy of these treatments varies among individual patients.
Consult your primary care physician before starting any new treatment. It is
important to find out whether the treatment will be safe for you.
Acupuncture and acupressure are traditional Chinese
medicine techniques. They relieve pain by stimulating the skin at key points.
This prompts the body to release endorphins. It may also block messages of pain
from being delivered to the brain.
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
TENS applies a small electric current to specific nerves.
This current is believed to interrupt pain signals and lead to endorphin
Herbs & Supplements
There are many herbal supplements that have purported anti-inflammatory
properties. According to the Arthritis
Foundation, many studies have suggested that capsaicin can help fight
arthritic pain. This is the natural chemical that gives chili
peppers their heat. It’s used in several topical arthritis treatments.
Turmeric& is another healthy spice that has been used to
reduce inflammation for hundreds of years.
There is also some evidence that
some other natural remedies may help with arthritis pain, including:
- vitamin C
- fish oil
- glucosamine and chondroitin
- cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa)
- avocado soybean unsaponifiables
Clinical evidence for these supplements is mixed.
However, some people find them helpful. In addition, some of these supplements —
such as fish oil and vitamin C — provide other health benefits unrelated to
arthritis. However, it is important to exercise caution when taking supplements.
Just because a product is natural does not mean it’s safe. The contents of supplements are not verified
by the FDA.
You should always consult your doctor before taking any
supplement. Some supplements can interact with medications or cause health