Best Painkillers for Osteoarthritis

Woman asks doctor about painkillers for osteoarthritisUnfortunately there isn’t a cure for osteoarthritis (OA). But that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your quality of life! Before we look at the best painkillers (prescription or over the counter) for osteoarthritis, we should mention the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), people with OA should:

  • Exercise and strengthen muscles, especially the ones that support joints affected by your OA
  • Avoid activities that cause pain
  • Make sure you are getting enough rest
  • Lose weight if needed

You might already be doing all you can for your osteoarthritis. You’re already eating well, getting quality sleep, exercising regularly and have a healthy weight, but you’re still struggling with chronic OA pain. This is why it’s important to know what pain medication works best for osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis Painkillers Recommended by NIAMS

NIAMS recommends starting out with a low dosage of the osteoarthritis medication you and your doctor decide is best. These are some of the best painkillers for osteoarthritis:

Acetaminophen is a painkiller used for osteoarthritis


This is usually the first type of painkiller doctors recommend for osteoarthritis. Acetaminophen can be effective for OA pain. However it does not decrease inflammation in the body.

Acetaminophen is pretty safe, but taking more than the recommended dosage can be unsafe for your liver. You should avoid drinking more than two alcoholic drinks a day. Acetaminophen is the active ingredient in Tylenol and Panadol.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS)

Often doctors recommend NSAIDS when acetaminophen doesn’t work out for a patient. They are an excellent choice for osteoarthritis patients because they are non-sedating and effective. Unlike acetaminophen, NSAIDS also treat inflammation. Over-the-counter NSAIDS include ibuprofen (for example Advil and Motrin) and naproxen (for example Aleve).

They might prove more effective, but they also have more side effects. The risks include stomach irritation or in bad cases even erosion or ulcer. NSAIDS also affect the kidneys. And all NSAIDS other than aspirin can increase the risk for heart attack and stroke. In July of 2015, the FDA strengthened its warnings on NSAIDS. You can now read a warning on the risks associated with taking NSAIDS directly on the labels.

Cyclooxygenase-2 Inhibitors (COX-2 inhibitors)

These are also NSAIDS but they are prescription strength. They are also designed to produce less stomach irritation. COX-2 inhibitors might be your best option if over-the-counter NSAIDS irritate your stomach and you haven’t had any luck with acetaminophen.

Like other NSAIDS, they do carry the risk of kidney damage. The FDA also requires manufacturers of these drugs to include the same warnings about increased risk for heart attack and stroke. It’s best to take only the lowest dose possible that still relieves your pain.

Medications for Severe Osteoarthritis Pain

Maybe you’ve tried all of these osteoarthritis medications and are still experiencing pain. The good news is that there are other painkillers and treatments for more advanced stages of OA. These include the following:

Opioid Analgesics

Opioid analgesics are powerful painkillers that act like or are made from opium. Though they have the potential to provide great pain relief, they should be treated with caution. Opioid analgesics have many potential side effects and can be addictive. It is important to take them exactly as prescribed.

Opioid analgesics are typically safe but can cause drowsiness. It is important not to drive, operate machinery or perform similar tasks when after you have take one of these powerful OA painkillers. Some opioid names you might recognize include:

  • Darvon (propoxyphene)
  • Vicodin (acetaminophen/hydrocodone)
  • Percocet (acetaminophen and oxycodone)

Doctor recommends painkillers for her osteoarthritis knee symptoms

Hyaluronic Acid Injections

These injections have been FDA approved but their effectiveness is still being debated. Hyaluronic acid is actually a naturally occurring substance inside one’s joints. Some people have had excellent results, but this hyaluronic acid injections can cause allergic reactions and swelling.

Corticosteroid Injections

This is when a doctor injects medicine directly into your joints. They provide short-term relief but you may need repeated injections through the course of the year.

If you have tried everything and are still suffering, you may need to consider other osteoarthritis treatments like surgery.

Osteoarthritis is a tough disease to live with. Fortunately there are many treatment options. A good plan of action is to ask your doctor about the best painkillers for osteoarthritis when starting out.

You shouldn’t tweak your treatment plan without consulting your doctor! It is great to educate yourself on available painkillers for osteoarthritis, but your doctor should sign off on any new medication.



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