Your guide to over-the-counter joint pain relief
Don’t let joint pain keep you down and out.
No matter where you feel it, when you have joint pain, you want quick relief.
“There are many ways to deal with chronic joint pain and discomfort, including rest, strengthening, exercise and surgery,” says Dr. Matthew McElroy, a sports medicine specialist at Geisinger. “But over-the-counter (OTC) medications are among the most common treatments people typically start with.”
But there are many options to choose from. Here’s where to start.
Why do my joints hurt?
Painful joints can be temporary or ongoing, Dr. McElroy explains, adding that aching joints are caused by many types of injuries or conditions. People of all ages and activity levels can have joint pain. Your pain might be the result of:
- Osteoarthritis, commonly called OA
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Excess weight
- Worn cartilage
- Tendon or ligament tear
- Other injuries
What about weight loss?
Mild to moderate weight loss can significantly reduce joint pain and slow the progression of arthritis, especially when combined with low impact and strengthening exercises for major muscle groups.
Talk to your physician or fitness coach to find out which exercises are best for you.
OTC joint pain relief
Before you stock your medicine cabinet, here’s a rundown of the most widely used OTC treatments for aching joints.
OTC pain relievers
For swelling, the best solutions are general pain relievers that reduce inflammation and don’t contain steroids. These pain medications include ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®), naproxen (Aleve®) and aspirin. If you’re taking other medications, consult your pharmacist before using any OTC pain relievers.
If you don’t have swelling or inflammation, acetaminophen (Tylenol®) can help with painful joints. Avoid drinking alcohol while taking acetaminophen, as it can cause liver damage.
Available in cream, spray, rub or gel forms, topical pain relievers are applied to the skin of the affected area to help reduce pain and swelling.
“Medications that are applied directly to the sore area can include counterirritants that contain menthol or camphor, which counteract pain perceptions,” says Dr. McElroy. “These include products such as Icy Hot® and Biofreeze®.”
The key ingredients active include capsaicin and salicylates.
Dr. McElroy adds, “Capsaicin is the chemical in chili peppers that give them their heat and interacts with your neurons to relieve pain, while salicylates have the same effects of aspirin.”
Hot or cold therapy
Hot and cold treatments can help decrease joint inflammation, pain and stiffness. Heat therapy includes dry heat (heating pads) and moist heat, like a hot bath or shower, and improves circulation and relaxes the muscles. Cold therapy, such as an ice pack or a cold compress, helps reduce swelling.
“In addition to traditional medication, heating wraps and pads can also be used to relieve joint pain and don’t have serious side effects,” says Dr. McElroy.
Vitamins and supplements
Glucosamine or chondroitin sulfate are supplements that contain material found in the joints, which may assist with regeneration. Antioxidants, which are often found in supplements, can also help prevent and treat joint pain by reducing inflammation. Omega 3s are found in fish oil and regulate body functions that manage inflammation. Green tea is also a natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
A lack of vitamin D can also lead to joint pain.
“When treating your joint pain with traditional medication you should also take advantage of natural remedies,” says Dr. McElroy. “Getting more sunlight — with sunscreen, of course — is one of the best ways to help yourself if you haven’t been getting out of the house enough.”
The type of pain you have will determine the treatment that’s most appropriate. Talk with your doctor before you start any new treatments and to understand how any medications you’re taking might interact.
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