More than 50 million Americans have arthritis or a related disease, and some experts estimate the global market for arthritis drugs brings as much as $35 billion a year in profits. The many different types of drugs used to treat arthritis and its accompanying pain, includes over-the-counter and prescription-only drugs, injections, infusions, patches and topical agents.

Drugs fight arthritis pain in one of two different ways, says Eric Hsu, MD, Clinical Professor of Pain Management at the University of California at Los Angeles. Drugs may fight the underlying inflammation and, in some cases, the lack of cushioning, lubricating fluid that is causing the joint pain. Other drugs reduce the pain itself, or the brain’s ability to sense pain. Many people with severe arthritis pain take more than one medication to manage their pain.

“There are many side effects and concerns” to long-term use of arthritis drugs, including those that fight inflammation and those that lessen pain, Dr. Hsu notes. “Some drugs may not have long-term benefits, and they can have serious side effects.”

However, finding the right treatment for you may mean trying different drugs through a trial-and-error process. “Too often, people try a pill and it doesn’t work, and they’re done,” says Doris Cope, MD, head of the pain medicine program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The good news is that there are many new, effective treatments to fight pain and the future of pain-management offers hope. Research and better training are giving us “more tools in our toolbox,” Dr. Cope adds.

The Toolbox: Pain Treatments
Pain-fighting drugs fall into several broad categories. Here’s a brief look at each type of treatment, how they fight pain, and what side effects or risks they generally carry. For a comprehensive resource that is updated regularly and includes common dosages, side effects and warnings, visit the Arthritis Today Drug Guide. You also will be able to access MyMedTracker, a free online medication-management tool specifically developed for people with arthritis. My MedTracker allows you to track current and previous medications, enter custom notes and print a personalized list of medications and notes to take to your doctor visits.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, are among the most common treatments for arthritis and other types of pain. At low doses, NSAIDs treat mild muscle aches, headaches, mild joint pain and fever. Many people with arthritis take NSAIDs at higher, prescription doses to help reduce joint inflammation.

NSAIDs work by blocking prostaglandins, hormone-like substances produced by the body that contribute to pain, inflammation, fever and muscle cramps.

“With NSAIDs, there are a lot of side effects and concerns” for long-term use, says Dr. Hsu. If someone has a history of coronary artery disease, for example, NSAIDs may make heart risks worse.