Health Education

Arthritis treatment and medications

Cropped SingleCare logo By | March 25, 2020
Medically reviewed by Michael L. Davis, MD

What is arthritis? | Arthritis diagnosis | Arthritis treatment options | Arthritis medications | Best arthritis medications | Side effects of arthritis meds | Arthritis home remedies | FAQ | Resources

Painful, stiff, and swollen joints can make daily life uncomfortable. These are just some of the symptoms of arthritis, which can be treated at home, with therapy, and medications. These are some of the most popular treatments and medications for managing symptoms.   

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is very common. It affects over 54 million people in the United States. Arthritis is inflammation of the joints that leads to joint damage, swelling, pain, and stiffness. When joints become inflamed, they can swell up, stiffen, and become difficult to move. These symptoms can make daily life uncomfortable and even difficult to manage.   

There are many reasons why people get arthritis. Older adults are more likely to get it, but anyone can develop arthritis. Arthritis can be caused by genetics, injury, infections, underlying diseases, or immune system dysfunction.   

There are over 100 different forms of arthritis. These are some of the most common types:   

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Gout
  • Juvenile arthritis
  • Psoriatic arthritis

Doctors and researchers are always looking for new ways to treat arthritis. The right type of treatment for arthritis may vary depending on the type of arthritis someone has, but treatment plans will most likely include one or more of the following:

  • Medication
  • Surgery
  • Sessions with a physical therapist or occupational therapist 
  • Home remedies
  • Lifestyle changes  

How is arthritis diagnosed?

The most common symptoms of arthritis are swollen, painful, and stiff joints. Your healthcare provider may diagnose you with arthritis based on your symptoms, but you’ll probably need additional tests to determine the exact type of arthritis you have. Here are some tests your physician may order:      

  • Imaging scans: X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans can help show your doctor what’s going on in your joints and bones.
  • Blood tests: A blood test can tell your doctor if you have certain antibodies that indicate a particular type of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis.  

A primary care physician can diagnose arthritis, but you might be sent to a rheumatologist or orthopedic surgeon if you have severe symptoms. Your doctor may ask you some of the following questions to help confirm a diagnosis: 

  • Do you have a family history of arthritis?
  • In what joints are you experiencing pain, swelling, or stiffness?
  • Are you currently taking any medications?
  • Does anything make your symptoms feel better? 

Arthritis treatment options

Once you’ve been diagnosed with arthritis, the next step is treating your symptoms. Arthritis is a chronic condition that can’t be cured, but there are many options for pain relief and reducing inflammation.  

“Arthritis is the process of the cartilage of a joint being gradually worn away,” says Daniel Paull, MD, founder and CEO of Easy Orthopedics. “Before the arthritis is that far along, exercising and strengthening the muscles around a joint can provide good relief of pain and prevent further cartilage damage. When the muscles around a joint get strong, they can improve your biomechanics and will stabilize your joint, which can limit cartilage damage. Losing weight can also help as it takes strain off a joint and decreases whole-body inflammation. Once arthritis has progressed, the only real way to get rid of it is to do a joint replacement.”  

As Dr. Paull says, regular exercise and joint replacement are two treatment options for arthritis. These are some other possible options:   

  • Physical therapy
  • Joint fusion
  • Surgical cleaning (synovectomy) 
  • Medication (prescription and over-the-counter) 
  • Acupuncture
  • Hot and cold therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy 

The best way to learn more about arthritis treatments and to find the treatment that will work best for you is to talk with your doctor or rheumatologist.   

Arthritis medications

There are many different medications that can be used to treat arthritis. The type of medication you’ll need will depend on what type of arthritis you have, your age, your individual symptoms, and your medical history. Here are some of the most popular types of arthritis medications. 

Corticosteroids 

Corticosteroids can be taken orally or injected by a healthcare professional. They help reduce inflammation and are immunosuppressive. Prednisone and cortisone are two examples of commonly prescribed oral corticosteroids. Aristocort is an example of a corticosteroid that needs to be injected. Corticosteroids have been known to cause weight gain, acne, and mood swings.    

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are commonly used to treat arthritis. They help decrease inflammation, relieve pain, and reduce swelling. Some NSAIDs like Advil and Motrin are available over-the-counter. Others like naproxen and mobic require a prescription. NSAIDs can sometimes cause side effects like an upset stomach or skin rash.       

Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)  

These types of drugs work by suppressing the immune system so that it stops attacking healthy joints. DMARDs are sometimes used to treat inflammatory arthritis, but can cause serious liver and blood problems or make you susceptible to infections. Azulfidine (sulfasalazine) and Plaquenil (hydroxychloroquine) are examples of conventional DMARDs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Orencia (abatacept) and Humira (adalimumab) are examples of biologic DMARDs for rheumatoid arthritis.      

What is the best medication for arthritis?

Everyone will experience arthritis a little differently, and there isn’t one medication that will work best for everyone. Your doctor can recommend or prescribe the right medication for you based on your individual symptoms and medical history. The following table lists some of the most popular arthritis medications your doctor might prescribe or recommend.     

Best medications for arthritis
Drug name Drug class Administration route Standard dosage Common side effects
Naprosyn
(naproxen
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory  Oral 250 mg taken twice daily  Vision changes, bruising, swelling
Voltaren
(diclofenac sodium
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory  Topical/Oral 50 mg taken twice daily or as directed by a medical professional  Bruising, swelling, allergic reaction
Mobic
(meloxicam
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory  Oral 7.5 mg taken once per day Bruising, allergic reaction, swelling stomach pain 
Celebrex
(celecoxib)  
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory Oral 100 mg taken once daily  Bruising, skin rash, stomach pain
Advil 
(ibuprofen)  
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory Oral  Taken as directed on the bottle or by a medical professional  Upset stomach, bruising skin rash 

Dosage is determined by your doctor based on your medical condition, response to treatment, age, weight and other factors. Other possible side effects exist. This is not a complete list.  

What are the common side effects of arthritis medications?

Taking any medication comes with the potential for side effects. Here are some of the most common side effects of arthritis medications:

  • Upset stomach
  • Nausea
  • Bruising
  • Changes in urination 
  • Swelling or weight gain from water retention
  • Skin rash
  • Kidney problems

In addition to these side effects, arthritis medications may cause more serious side effects that could require medical attention. If you have any vision changes, mood or behavior changes, or severe stomach pain or vomiting, you should seek medical advice as soon as possible.   

Arthritis medications can also cause allergic reactions that can be life-threatening. Signs of an allergic reaction include hives, difficulty breathing, and swelling of the face and throat. You should seek immediate medical attention if you believe you’re having an allergic reaction. 

This list of side effects is not comprehensive. The best way to learn more about other side effects you might experience from taking arthritis medications is to talk with your doctor.

What are the best natural remedies for arthritis?

Many people use natural remedies to treat their arthritis symptoms at home. Here are some of the most popular natural remedies for arthritis.   

Getting enough exercise 

Even though arthritis can be painful and make moving around more difficult, there’s lots of evidence to suggest that physical activity can help improve joint function, reduce pain, and reduce inflammation. Walking, biking, tai chi, yoga, and swimming are examples of exercises that can reduce your arthritis pain and improve your quality of life with arthritis.    

Eating ginger and turmeric

Ginger and turmeric have anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties that can help reduce inflammation and pain in the body. When inflammation in the body goes down, so does arthritis pain. Ginger and turmeric can be used as spices, consumed as tea, and even taken as a supplement. 

Using frankincense oil

Frankincense is an essential oil that’s well known for its powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Applying frankincense oil topically to painful joints can help relieve arthritis pain. This can be done several times per day as long as there’s no skin reaction. 

Frequently asked questions about arthritis

What really causes arthritis?

There are many kinds of arthritis and each has different causes. Osteoarthritis, the most common arthritis in the U.S., is known as “wear and tear” or older-age arthritis. Injuries, infections, birth defects and obesity are some causes of osteoarthritis. Many other types of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, are autoimmune diseases where the immune system mistakenly attacks the joints causing pain and inflammation. Other types of arthritis, like gout, are caused by inflammation due to microscopic crystals depositing in the joints. 

What are the early signs of arthritis?

Early signs of arthritis include:

  • Joint pain
  • Joint stiffness
  • Joint aches
  • Pain that’s worse in the morning (tends to be autoimmune)
  • Pain that gets worse with inactivity (tends to be autoimmune)
  • Pain during or after activity (tends to be osteoarthritis)
  • Swelling of the joints
  • Less range of motion in the joints 
  • Tenderness of the joints
  • Tiredness along with the joint pain

Can arthritis go away on its own?

Most arthritis conditions are chronic and do not  go away on their own. They can be managed with medications, healthy lifestyle changes, weight loss, exercise regimens and physical therapy, bracing, joint injections (cortisone or lubricants) and surgery, but these don’t cure the arthritis itself.  

What is arthritis pain like?

Arthritis typically causes joints to become painful, stiff, and sometimes swollen. But these aren’t the only symptoms that someone with arthritis might feel. Arthritis can also cause joints to feel constantly achy, and many people with arthritis report muscle weakness, muscle aching, and feelings of tiredness.   

What is the best treatment for arthritis?

There are many different treatment options for arthritis and there isn’t one single treatment plan that will work best for everyone. Arthritis is most commonly treated with a combination of medications, lifestyle changes, and treatments like physical therapy. Your doctor can help you determine what type of treatment will work best for you. 

Can arthritis be cured permanently?

Most arthritis conditions are chronic and have no cure. Painful, swollen, and stiff joints that characterize arthritis can be managed. With proper treatment and lifestyle changes, damage to your joints can often be minimized.     

Can you die from arthritis?

Arthritis isn’t a fatal condition. However, some types of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, can cause or contribute to other medical problems that are life-threatening. Examples of health complications that can be caused by arthritis include heart disease, lung disease, and kidney problems. Conditions like these are potentially fatal, not the arthritis itself.  

What foods make arthritis worse?

Inflammatory foods like refined sugar, alcohol, refined carbs, and fried foods tend to put stress on the body. When the body tries to process these foods, it becomes inflamed and makes arthritis worse. Several dietary items can cause or worsen gout arthritis in susceptible people. If you have gout or a strong family history of it, ask your doctor about this. 

What is the best vitamin or herbal for arthritis?

There isn’t one single vitamin that’s best for arthritis, but supplements like vitamin D, the B vitamins, glucosamine, curcumin, fish oil, ginger, and turmeric may help lower arthritis pain and inflammation.  

What is the latest drug for arthritis?

Doctors and researchers are always working to develop new drugs that help treat arthritis. Janus kinase inhibitors (JAK inhibitors) are an example of new drugs that can help treat rheumatoid arthritis by playing a role in how the immune system functions. The FDA has also just approved a new drug called Olumiant (baricitinib) for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.   

What is the best over-the-counter medication for arthritis?

There isn’t one single over-the-counter medication that’s best for arthritis, but many doctors recommend Tylenol (acetaminophen) or NSAIDs like Advil, Aspirin, or Aleve. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like these help reduce inflammation and pain. 

What is prescribed for arthritis? 

Doctors prescribe different medications for arthritis depending on the individual and their unique symptoms. Types of medications commonly prescribed for arthritis include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Corticosteroids (sometimes called, cortisone or steroids)
  • Over-the-counter pain medications (OTCs)
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)   

Related resources for arthritis