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Nonprescription Medicines for Osteoarthritis

Topic Overview

Medicines that you can buy without a prescription can be very useful in relieving the pain of mild or moderate osteoarthritis.

  • Try acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) first. Regular use of acetaminophen can provide relief of pain caused by osteoarthritis. Doctors may advise people who take acetaminophen on a regular basis to limit alcohol consumption.
  • Aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs) are also good pain relievers, especially if you are not bothered by stomach problems. Talk to your doctor to determine the best dose of NSAIDs for your symptoms. Also consult your doctor before use if you have had stomach ulcers, liver disease, kidney disease, heart failure, or if you will be taking NSAIDs daily for more than 6 months. People younger than age 20 should not take aspirin because of the risk of Reye syndrome (a central nervous system complication in children).
  • Capsaicin (Zostrix), available without a prescription, is a pain reliever that comes in a cream and is applied directly to the skin (topical analgesic). It has been found to relieve joint pain of osteoarthritis in some people when rubbed into the skin over affected joints.1 To be beneficial, the cream must be applied 3 or 4 times a day. And the effects may not be seen for several weeks. The main ingredient in capsaicin is an extract from hot peppers. It appears to have no serious side effects. But some people may be allergic or sensitive to capsaicin. The first time you use this topical cream, apply it to just a small area of skin to ensure there is no allergic reaction. Even those who are not allergic may note a burning sensation. Some people may not be able to tolerate the discomfort of capsaicin.
  • Glucosamine and chondroitin are dietary supplements that are based primarily on components of natural cartilage (the cushion between bones in a joint). Many people take the supplements glucosamine and chondroitin, alone or together, for osteoarthritis. Some people believe they help. But an analysis of studies did not show that these supplements slow joint destruction or relieve pain.2 The supplements are safe for most people, but they cost money and may not help you. Talk to your doctor if you are considering glucosamine or chondroitin.

Related Information

References

Citations

  1. Lozada CJ (2009). Management of osteoarthritis. In GS Firestein et al., eds., Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology, 8th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1563–1577. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
  2. Wandel S, et al. (2010). Effects of glucosamine, chondroitin, or placebo in patients with osteoarthritis of the hip or knee: Network meta-analysis. BMJ. Published online September 16, 2010 (doi:10.1136/bmj.c4675).

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Stanford M. Shoor, MD - Rheumatology
Last Revised April 8, 2011

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