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Osteoarthritis symptoms can be managed in a variety of ways and these options can be discussed with your GP to find the right option for you. Often, exercises and assistive devices are used in combination with prescription medication. Pain, stiffness and swelling can be alleviated by many types of oral medication, creams, salves and even injections.

Oral medication

To reduce pain, oral medication for osteoarthritis is usually used as they work quickly and are reliable. However, it’s possible that they will cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or stomach pain in some patients and so this should be monitored. They are also not suitable for patients with a known heart condition.

It’s not a good idea to rely on painkillers for long term pain management. Always read the accompanying leaflet and if there is anything you’re not sure about seek advice from your GP.

The types of oral medication that are commonly prescribed for osteoarthritis pain relief include the following:


Opioids work in a similar way to paracetamol and may be prescribed as an alternative. As with any other medication there are potential side effects for some patients, and these may include constipation, nausea and drowsiness.

You may be prescribed the following opioids:

  • Codeine: Codeine is typically used to treat mild to moderate pain. It can be combined with a dose of paracetamol as co-codamol.
  • Tramadol: Tramadol is used to treat moderate to severe pain and is often introduced where weaker painkillers are no longer providing pain relief. This medication is not suitable for patients who suffer from uncontrolled epilepsy.
  • Dihydrocodeine: Dihydrocodeine is for moderate to severe pain and is usually used where other painkillers have failed to treat pain. This medication is not suitable for patients who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

If you need to take any opioid medication for osteoarthritis for a long period of time you may also be prescribed a laxative to help with any resulting constipation.

Gels and salves

Patients who can’t take oral medication may find that gels and salves can provide some relief. These can work to reduce inflammation effectively and are much less likely to cause adverse side effects. However, they are generally less effective than oral medication.

Capsaicin cream is often prescribed for patients suffering from osteoarthritis, especially those experiencing pain in their hands and knees. It is also suitable for patients who haven’t responded well to NSAIDs such as naproxen, ibuprofen and diclofenac.

Capsaicin cream works by nerve blocking the area it is applied to. This prevents pain signals being sent to the brain. You should expect to wait for around two weeks before experiencing some pain relief and a month for other benefits such as less stiffness or swelling.

It’s completely normal to feel some burning on your skin where it’s applied. The longer you use, the less this should occur. If you avoid using it before or after you have a bath or a shower, the burning should be minimised.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

There are two types of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs which you may be prescribed if paracetamol fails to provide any pain relief. They work in slightly different ways.

The first is a traditional non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. These include ibuprofen, naproxen and diclofenac.

The second type are COX-2 inhibitors or coxibs. These include drugs like celecoxib and etoricoxib.

There are also non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug creams that you can apply directly to the affected area or joint. They also reduce swelling and help with pain so are helpful for patients who are suffering from osteoarthritis in their hand or knee.

Patients who take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in tablet form will also be given a proton pump inhibitor. These offset potential damage to your stomach lining which can occur when taking these tablets.


In some cases your GP may recommend that you first try taking paracetamol for pain relief from osteoarthritis. You can buy this over the counter without a prescription for pain relief for osteoarthritis uk. Always read the instructions to ensure that you are taking the correct dose at the right intervals.


Injections are sometimes preferable to oral medication, especially for osteoarthritis knee pain relief. They carry less risk of side effects and they only need to be administered up to four times per year.

If your osteoarthritis is causing severe inflammation you may be offered intra-articular injections instead of painkillers. This is administered by firstly relieving pressure on the joint then injecting a medication directly into the joint affected. Usually corticosteroid is used.

Patients who have tried many solutions without experiencing any significant relief may be offered viscosupplementation, often as knee injections for osteoarthritis. Up to five injections of hyaluronic acid will be administered. Hyaluronic acid is a natural lubricant and shock absorber found in synovial fluid in joints.

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