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Medication to help manage the pain of arthritis
What is an over-the-counter medication?
An over-the-counter (OTC) medication - sometimes also called a non-prescription medication, over-the-counter medication, or OTC - is any medication that can be purchased without a prescription. Some medications that help control the pain of arthritis can be purchased over the counter. You are probably familiar with many of them, such as acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol®, Tylenol® Arthritis Pain), ibuprofen (e.g. Motrin® or Advil®), naproxen (Aleve®), and acetylsalicylic acid or ASA (e.g. Aspirin®, Entrophen®, Anacin®, Novasen®).
Ibuprofen, naproxen and ASA belong to a group of drugs called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Diclofenac gel (Voltaren Emulgel®) is an over-the-counter topical NSAID that can be applied to the skin to relieve pain. Consult your doctor or pharmacist before using any oral or topical OTC NSAID.
There are a number of over-the-counter creams and ointments designed to relieve the symptoms of arthritis. Some of these products contain a salicylate as the active ingredient, while others contain camphor, menthol or capsaicin.
What are over-the-counter medicines used for?
Acetaminophen is most commonly used to treat osteoarthritis, while NSAIDs are used to treat inflammatory arthritis and osteoarthritis. More information on NSAIDs can be found in the section on anti-inflammatory medicines.
Topical medications can be used to help manage the pain associated with osteoarthritis. They are not commonly used for inflammatory arthritis.
How are over-the-counter medications administered?
Non-prescription medicines are usually given orally in tablet form. However, there are also several over-the-counter topical creams and ointments that can help ease the pain of arthritis.
Which over-the-counter medication is right for you?
Acetaminophen is most commonly used to relieve the pain of osteoarthritis, but it can also help treat the pain associated with inflammatory arthritis. The usefulness of this medication in treating inflammatory arthritis is limited, as it does not control the disease or prevent joint damage.
NSAIDs can be used to treat the symptoms of osteoarthritis and inflammatory forms of arthritis (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis).
Although acetaminophen is safer, NSAIDs are often preferable for osteoarthritis pain because they provide greater relief. Your health care provider may ask you to try a few different NSAIDs to find the one that works best for you.
Topical diclofenac and capsaicin are reasonable alternatives for treating osteoarthritis pain when acetaminophen does not provide relief, when a person does not tolerate oral medications well, or when a person does not want to take oral medications. These topicals, in particular, can be used in combination with oral medications when these do not provide adequate pain relief. There is little evidence to support the use of salicylate, camphor or menthol topicals in the treatment of OA.
How long will I need to take over-the-counter medication?
If your osteoarthritis pain is present most of the time, your doctor may recommend that you take over-the-counter medications on a regular basis. If the pain from your osteoarthritis is not constant, you can take them only as needed. Inflammatory arthritis most often requires lifelong treatment. This may include regular use of over-the-counter NSAIDs. However, inflammatory arthritis usually requires DMARDs and biologic agents.
Topicals are generally used for symptomatic relief and are not commonly used for the long-term management of osteoarthritis or inflammatory arthritis.