Types of Treatment for Arthritis

By Lewis, Sarah, PharmD

As a medical term, arthritis simply means inflammation of a joint. However, treating arthritis effectively is far from simple. The Arthritis Foundation lists over 100 types of arthritis and related diseases (Source: AF). While treatments may vary depending on your specific diagnosis, managing the pain and swelling of any type of arthritis have some common elements.

What Are the Goals of Arthritis Treatment?

The goals in treating arthritis are to reduce pain and swelling, maintain joint function, and prevent further damage and disability. The good news is that these goals are connected, and working on achieving one goal will help to reach another goal. For example, treating swelling will often reduce pain, which allows you to practice exercises that help maintain joint function. This improves your ability to move and reduces disability.

Can I Improve Joint Damage Due to Arthritis?

Unfortunately, once you have joint damage from arthritis, it can’t be reversed. The good news is that you can often slow joint damage and stop it from getting worse. If you have joint pain or swelling for more than two weeks, see your doctor. Early treatment can prevent joint damage and improve your joint function.

What Medications Treat Arthritis?

Your treatment plan for arthritis will depend on your specific form of arthritis and the severity of your symptoms. Your doctor may recommend medicines to reach your treatment goals:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can reduce joint pain from several hours up to 8 hours.

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn) reduce inflammation, swelling, pain and stiffness for up to 12 hours.

  • Topical creams with ingredients such as capsaicin, salicylates, menthol, eucalyptus, and wintergreen oil can help temporarily with pain and stiffness.

  • Corticosteroid injections into the joint may reduce inflammation, swelling, pain and stiffness better and longer (days to weeks) than oral drugs and creams.

  • Hyaluronic acid injections into the joint may relieve inflammation, swelling, pain and stiffness better and longer (six months to a year) than oral drugs and creams.

What Other Treatment Strategies Help With Arthritis?

In addition to medications, a complete treatment plan can include a variety of other strategies and therapies. Not all therapies work for all people, and you will need to work with your doctor to determine what treatments are most effective for you.

Physical and occupational therapy. You might think that exercise will increase your pain or make arthritis worse. In fact, just the opposite is true. Prescribed exercises, activities and therapies can actually help you control pain and maintain joint function and flexibility.

Heat and cold therapy can ease pain and loosen stiff joints. Heat therapy includes heating pads, heat lamps, warm compresses, hot water bottles, paraffin wax baths, and warm water baths. Cold therapy, such as cold compresses and ice packs, can also help arthritis by reducing pain and swelling. Your healthcare provider may recommend using both heat and cold therapy.

Joint immobilization with braces, splints, and elastic bandages holds your joint in place or makes it more stable. This makes you rest your joint and protects it from more injury and irritation.

Assistive devices keep stress off your joints in your lower body and help you maintain better balance. Examples are canes, crutches and walkers. Special types of insoles may help with pain and improve walking if you have knee arthritis.

Adaptive equipment allows you to reach and maneuver objects without bending and straining your joints. Examples are grabbers, reachers, and large handled tools and utensils. This equipment generally helps with arthritis in your upper body.

Alternative arthritis therapy.This includes a dietary supplement called glucosamine-chondroitin, which studies suggest may help to maintain or build cartilage. It provides relief to many, but not all people with arthritis, and may reduce the need for other medications. Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine involving the insertion of thin, sharp needles at certain points on your body. Researchers have found that acupuncture may improve arthritis pain in some people.

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Treatments for any type of arthritis are largely the same.