Oh, my aching joints!
With middle age often comes an all too familiar visitor. Marked by the gradual loss of cartilage, osteoarthritis can show up in many joints from keyboard-typing fingers to tennis-twisting knees. Over time, it can cause swollen, aching, gnarled joints and put a major crimp in your style!
For mild pain that comes and goes, rest and maybe cold or heat may be all you need. Then, over-the-counter (OTC) acetaminophen (such as Tylenol or Excedrin) or aspirin every four hours may relieve the kind of pain that shows up after an ambitious spring-cleaning or daylong tug o' war with some particularly stubborn weeds.1
When pain lasts longer, OTC nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories other than aspirin may do the trick. These work by not only decreasing pain, but also inflammation. Examples include ibuprofen such as Motrin or Advil, or naproxen such as Aleve or Naprosyn. Check the package for dosing instructions.1
For quick relief affecting just a few joints, topical medications may be the way to go. These are absorbed through the skin. They come as sprays, or creams or gels you rub in, or patches that stick to the skin. They're most effective for joints that are close to the skin's surface. 2
You may be most familiar with topical medications containing salicylates, which is found in aspirin think BENGAY, Aspercreme, or Flexall. Sometimes products with menthol (ArthriCare, Icy Hot, Therapeutic Mineral Ice) also work to override pain sensations with heat or cold. But, did you know that capsaicin, a substance found in chili peppers, is also sometimes used for arthritis pain? Olé! It works by depleting a chemical in nerve cells, thereby interrupting pain messages. Products include Zostrix and Capzasin-P.2,3
Do these products work? Well, some people say they help, but scientists note that the research only reports a mild benefit. Might be worth a try. Do take a few precautions, however. For example, be sure to wash your hands after applying capsaicin and avoid touching your eyes. If you've ever accidentally done this after chopping hot chili peppers, you know what I mean! Also avoid using any of these products on broken or irritated skin, or with a heating pad or bandage. If you know you're allergic to aspirin or you're taking blood thinners, check with your doctor before using products containing salicylates.2,3
Another topical option is a Lidocaine patch (Lidoderm). These are approved for shingles, but are sometimes also used to numb the pain of osteoarthritis for 12 hours at a time.2
NSAID pills can be tough on the stomach, so you might want to give topical NSAID creams or gels a try. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a prescription NSAID gel containing diclofenac (Voltaren) for osteoarthritis in hands, wrists, elbows, feet, ankles, or knees. A patch is also available.2
If these steps don't manage your symptoms, or if you find yourself using OTC medications very often, be sure to have a talk with your doctor. Then, feel free to stop by with any questions you have for me.
1. Mayo Clinic: "Arthritis pain: Do's and don'ts." http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/arthritis/AR00029/METHOD=print
2. Mayo Clinic: "Arthritis pain relief: Creams and gels for aching joints." http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/pain-medications/PN00041
3. Arthritis Today: "Osteoarthritis Medications." http://www.arthritistoday.org/conditions/osteoarthritis/treatment/oa-medications.php