Common Pain Relievers Can Make Arthritis Worse, New Study Finds

Research shows the OTC options might actually be exacerbating your pain problems.

Even though it may not seem as serious as potential heart or cognitive issues, the aches and pains associated with arthritis can still profoundly affect everyday life as we get older. Many who live with the condition can manage their discomfort with a simple over-the-counter (OTC) medicine that provides relief and can make it easier to enjoy a more normal daily routine. But according to a new study, some of the common pain relievers you might be taking to treat arthritis could actually be making it worse. Read on to see which remedy may not be as effective as once thought.

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Arthritis is a common condition, especially among those who are older.

man sitting at home holding his left arm wrist due to pain caused by osteoarthritis, arthritis, tendonitis, rheumatism.

People of all ages can suffer from aches and pains that may come and go over time due to injuries or other ailments. But as we age, the body can also develop a more chronic condition called osteoarthritis. Also known as degenerative joint disease or simply referred to as "wear and tear" arthritis, the affliction typically affects the knees, hips, and hands as cartilage in the joints is damaged or breaks down, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Unfortunately, it's also quite common, affecting more than 32.5 million adults in the U.S. and 500 million people worldwide.

While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, it can be treated using a wide range of approaches, including physical therapy, increased physical activity, or even surgery, according to the agency. But for many patients, over-the-counter pain relievers can play a huge part in tackling the condition. However, new research could change the way we manage arthritis pain.

A new study finds that certain common pain relievers can actually make arthritis worse in some patients.

Spilled Ibuprofen
Michelle Lee Photography/Shutterstock

It's common for patients to turn to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to manage their osteoarthritis pain. These include ibuprofen—which is sold as Advil or Motrin—and naproxen, sold under the brand name Aleve. But in a new study that will be presented next week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), a team of researchers sought to understand how the treatment could affect the condition in the long term.

"To date, no curative therapy has been approved to cure or reduce the progression of knee osteoarthritis," Johanna Luitjens, MD, the study's lead author and a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a statement. "NSAIDs are frequently used to treat pain, but it is still an open discussion of how NSAID use influences outcomes for osteoarthritis patients. In particular, the impact of NSAIDs on synovitis—or the inflammation of the membrane lining the joint—has never been analyzed using MRI-based structural biomarkers."

In their experiment, the team enlisted 277 participants who had been diagnosed with moderate to severe osteoarthritis and had maintained NSAID use to treat pain for at least one year. Researchers also established a control group of 793 patients with the same condition who hadn't taken the medication. The team took an MRI of patients' knees at the beginning of the study and then again roughly four years later. Results showed that not only did there appear to be no long-term benefits to taking NSAIDs to treat osteoarthritis, but those who were using the medicine had worse knee cartilage quality after four years compared to the control group.

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The researchers believe there are two potential explanations for their surprising findings.

Older man with pain in knee

The use of NSAIDs can help some patients reduce pain from osteoarthritis and provide momentary comfort. But according to the researchers, this could also explain why those who rely on them saw their condition worsen over time.

"On the one hand, the anti-inflammatory effect that normally comes from NSAIDs may not effectively prevent synovitis, with progressive degenerative change resulting in worsening of synovitis over time," Luitjens explained. "On the other hand, patients who have synovitis and are taking pain-relieving medications may be physically more active due to pain relief, which could potentially lead to worsening of synovitis, although we adjusted for physical activity in our model."

The team concluded that more research was needed on the topic.

Doctor talking to male patient

Ultimately, the team concluded that more "prospective, randomized studies" were needed to fully understand the relationship between NSAIDs and their long-term effects on osteoarthritis. However, they added that their findings should also start a discussion about which medicines should be used to treat the condition in the future.

"In this large group of participants, we were able to show that there were no protective mechanisms from NSAIDs in reducing inflammation or slowing down progression of osteoarthritis of the knee joint," Luitjens said. "The use of NSAIDs for their anti-inflammatory function has been frequently propagated in patients with osteoarthritis in recent years and should be revisited, since a positive impact on joint inflammation could not be demonstrated."

Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.

Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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