Arthritis is a painful and uncomfortable condition resulting from different causes. The common links between all types of arthritis, though, are symptoms of inflammation, pain, and stiffness.

Treatment for arthritis depends on the underlying cause. In some cases, physical therapy and surgery are needed. However, most arthritis management includes medication. The best option for joint pain and stiffness is often a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).

Unlike acetaminophen, which only relieves pain, NSAIDs are drugs that both relieve pain and reduce inflammation. They come as over-the-counter drugs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen. NSAIDs also come as prescription drugs, such as:

  • celecoxib
  • diclofenac
  • meloxicam
  • nabumetone
  • piroxicam
  • sulindac

These drugs come in different forms, including pills, topical creams, and solutions. Most of these drugs you take yourself, but some a healthcare provider must give you.

All NSAIDs work by blocking an enzyme called cyclooxygenase. This enzyme contributes to the inflammation response. Blocking this enzyme helps stop the painful effects of inflammation before they happen.

Although they all do essentially the same thing, NSAIDs are not all the same because they affect people differently. Also, some of them can’t be combined with other medications or be taken if you have particular medical conditions. Treatment with NSAIDs is very individual. Make sure your doctor has your complete medical history when they’re considering a specific NSAID for you.

NSAIDs can be effective at managing arthritis pain, but they can also cause side effects. These side effects are more likely if you take a large amount of an NSAID and if you take it for a long time. Common side effects can include stomach pain and ulcers. Other side effects are less common but include:

  • increased risk of stroke or heart attack
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • ringing in the ears

In rare instances, NSAIDs can damage your liver and kidneys. The higher the dosage and the longer the treatment, the higher the risk. If you have liver or kidney problems, you may not be able to take NSAIDs.

An allergic reaction to these drugs is also possible, but not common. A reaction is serious if you experience:

  • wheezing
  • swelling of your face or throat
  • difficulty breathing

If you have any of these symptoms while taking an NSAID, contact your doctor right away. If you think that any of these symptoms are life-threatening, call 911.

If you use NSAIDs to help manage your arthritis pain, you probably use high doses over a long period. This usage could increase your risk of stomach upset and even ulcers. Your risk is further increased if you’re older than 65 years, have had ulcers or kidney problems, or take blood thinners. Talk to your doctor if you get an upset stomach while taking NSAIDs. They may suggest a different NSAID or other drug.

For example, celecoxib is considered safe for long-term arthritis pain. It does less damage to the stomach than other NAIDs. However, there are some concerns about the increased risk of heart attack and stroke from this drug. If you have a history of heart attacks or strokes or risk factors for these conditions, your doctor may consider another drug for you.

You can reduce your risk of some side effects of NSAIDs by taking them with food. Using a coated tablet will also protect your stomach from the drug. Never take more than the recommended dosage. If your medication still causes stomach upset, talk to your doctor about lowering the dosage. Remember to always tell your doctor about side effects, especially if they get worse.

NSAIDs work well for some people, but not everyone can take them, especially over the long term. Alternative treatments are worth a try, as long as your doctor approves. Some people find relief from arthritis pain and stiffness with: