Topical and oral medications are available over the counter to help treat osteoarthritis. These may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, acetaminophen, and supplements, among others.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are the most common pharmacological treatment for mild to moderate osteoarthritis. They’re available in topical and oral forms to help:

  • manage symptoms, such as pain and stiffness
  • reduce inflammation
  • improve your quality of life

Keep reading to learn more about the different OTC medications for osteoarthritis.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are one of the most effective OTC remedies for managing osteoarthritis pain, according to the American College of Rheumatology and the Arthritis Foundation (ACR/AF).

They work by reducing the body’s production of prostaglandins, which cause pain and inflammation. By doing this, NSAIDs may help reduce pain and lower inflammation and swelling in your joints.

Options include:

  • oral tablets for all types of osteoarthritis
  • topical creams and ointments for osteoarthritis of the knee and hand

Oral medications may impact your whole body. This is known as systemic exposure. For this reason, the ACR/AF recommends trying topical NSAIDs before oral tablets because topicals allow you to only target a specific area.

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), the following NSAIDs may help osteoarthritis:

NSAIDs side effects and risks

Prostaglandins help protect the lining of your stomach from damage by harsh stomach acids. When NSAIDs reduce prostaglandins in your body, they can leave your stomach vulnerable to acids.

NSAIDs may lead to potential side effects, including:

It’s important to speak with a healthcare professional before taking NSAIDs if you’re taking other medications like blood thinners, or have received a diagnosis of another health condition, such as:

NSAIDs may interact with some medications used to help treat these conditions, leading to further side effects and complications.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is a common OTC pain reliever that may help manage arthritis discomfort.

This drug works by reducing the feeling of pain in the brain. Although it may reduce pain, it’s important to note that acetaminophen doesn’t decrease joint inflammation.

For this reason, the ACR/AF only recommend it if you can’t use NSAIDs.

Some potential side effects of taking acetaminophen may include:

  • skin rash, hives, or itching
  • swelling in your face, arms, or legs
  • difficulty breathing

Get immediate medical attention if you experience any of these side effects, as they may lead to severe complications.

Taking large amounts of acetaminophen over time or using it with too much alcohol may cause liver damage.

However, it’s suitable for use during pregnancy and while nursing.

Always follow a doctor’s instructions regarding when to take a medication and how much to use.

If you’re taking other medications, check the label to see if they contain acetaminophen. Many medications do, and taking them together with acetaminophen could lead to further complications like overdose.

Topical pain relievers are treatments applied to the skin to help dull pain and reduce inflammation.

They usually have fewer side effects than oral medications because they don’t reach the whole body.

Topicals for osteoarthritis are available as creams, sprays, and gels. Their ingredients may include NSAIDs or capsaicin, the substance that makes chili peppers hot.

According to the ACR/AF, both treatments could benefit knee osteoarthritis. Topical NSAIDs may also be effective for hand osteoarthritis, but less research supports the use of capsaicin for hand osteoarthritis.

Researchers have not yet confirmed that topical treatments can help relieve osteoarthritis of the hip.

Remember to wash your hands after applying capsaicin, as it can cause a burning sensation if it spreads to another part of the body, especially the eyes.

Some vitamins and supplements may also help treat osteoarthritis, such as:

However, experts don’t recommend these because there’s not enough evidence to show they work, and some may interact with other drugs or cause negative effects.

In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate these products, so you can’t be sure exactly what they contain.

If you’re considering trying a supplement, speak with a doctor first.

Medications are not the only nonprescription osteoarthritis treatment. Some non-drug treatments may include:

A healthcare professional could advise you on non-drug options that may help.

What is the best OTC medication for osteoarthritis?

NSAIDs and acetaminophen are the two most common OTC medications for osteoarthritis. Capsaicin cream may also be used to help treat knee osteoarthritis.

What medication can I take for osteoarthritis?

OTC and prescription medications are available orally, topically, or by injection to help treat osteoarthritis. Medications may include NSAIDs, acetaminophen, corticosteroids, and PRP injections, among others.

OTC medications are commonly used to help treat mild to moderate osteoarthritis. They may form part of your osteoarthritis treatment plan, along with natural remedies, lifestyle changes, and physical therapy.

If your symptoms of osteoarthritis worsen or you don’t get relief from OTC medications, speak with a healthcare professional. They may suggest:

  • switching to another type of drug
  • changing the dose
  • using prescription medication

They could also help develop a new osteoarthritis treatment plan to help ease your symptoms and get you moving again.