Prescription Drugs for Joint Discomfort: Benefits and Downsides

by Emily Macadam on July 16, 2020

Joint discomfort is a common ailment that can be caused by a number of factors including medical conditions, disorders, autoimmune responses, injuries, and infections. It may also set in as a result of overuse and accumulated wear and tear. Because of its prevalence, drug manufacturers have developed a variety of prescription drugs designed to manage the symptoms of conditions like arthritis. These drugs can help to manage soreness and inflammation, and some can even stop or delay the progression of certain conditions.

Unfortunately, these drugs meant to improve quality of life are often accompanied by the risk of serious side effects, hefty price tags, and other unattractive downsides. Are any of the drugs frequently prescribed for joint pain exempt from concerning drawbacks?

There are seven main categories of drugs prescribed to combat aches and soreness in the joints: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs; disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs, or DMARDs; biologics, Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors, corticosteroids, analgesics, and opioids. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each drug category.

NSAIDs

This class of drugs includes both over-the-counter options like ibuprofen and prescription-strength medications like naproxen and celecoxib. While NSAIDs offer effective relief for inflammation, soreness, and fever at a low price point, they can’t slow or reverse the progression of conditions that cause joint deterioration. Long-term use can cause stomach lining aggravation and kidney damage and may elevate blood pressure and raise the risk of heart attack or stroke.1

ibuprofen bottle spilled on table

DMARDs

According to guidelines set by the American College of Rheumatology, DMARDs are the go-to treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors often start patients on a single DMARD, and may increase the number if a patient hasn’t experienced improvement in their symptoms after three months. DMARDs, the most common of which is methotrexate, can offer effective relief from symptoms as well as reducing further damage and preventing the rise of complications.3

However, relief is not immediate, and the side effects may include liver, lung, and eye damage. Drugs in this category also have immune system-suppressing effects, increasing the risk of various infections and illnesses. Much more expensive than a bottle of ibuprofen, DMARDs can range from $90 for eight tablets to around $1,400 for 30 tablets. Depending on insurance coverage and medication brand, patients generally pay between $1,500 and $2,000 annually for DMARD prescriptions.4

Biologics

A subset of DMARDs, biologics are targeted to act quickly and produce a high response rate. They are divided into two categories: anti-tumor necrosis factor inhibitor (anti-TNF) drugs and non-TNF drugs. Anti-TNF drugs interfere with the effects of TNF, a protein that can cause inflammation and kick the immune system into overdrive. Some of the most recognizable drugs prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis are anti-TNF drugs. They effectively reduce symptoms and discourage complications.1

The appeal of biologics is tempered by their side effects. Because they interrupt immune response processes, biologics increase the risk of serious infections like tuberculosis. Certain biologics may also contribute to the development of lymphoma.

This category of drugs has seen shocking increases in wholesale prices in recent years, with some costs increasing over 70%. [5] Without insurance or another form of assistance like a co-pay program, biologics can cost patients between $1,300 and $3,000 each month, often adding up to more than $30,000 annually.4

two elderly adults sitting on couch expressing shock over piece of paper

JAK Inhibitors

JAK inhibitors are a new kind of biologic that target JAK enzymes, which trigger inflammation. They prevent the attachment of inflammatory proteins called cytokines to immune cell receptors, disrupting the messaging system that would prompt the production of more cytokines. While biologics are administered via injection, JAK inhibitors are pills taken orally. They may provide relief for people who don’t respond well to DMARDs like methotrexate, which is roughly 35% of those to whom one or more DMARDs are prescribed.6

The trouble with JAK inhibitors is that, like biologics, they can’t selectively interfere with immune responses. Suppressing certain functions leaves the body vulnerable to infections and viral diseases. JAK inhibitors may also cause anemia, given their effect on a protein required to make red blood cells. They may also raise cholesterol and increase the risk of cancer and blood clots.6 Because these new biologics are new to the drug market, they’re currently more expensive than anti-TNF and non-TNF drugs.

Corticosteroids

Used for quick relief from severe flare-ups in the joints, corticosteroids can be taken orally, given intravenously, or injected directly into joints. They have a positive effect on inflammation, but they don’t slow or reverse the progression of joint degeneration. Steroids can’t be used for long-term treatment because of the long list of side effects they carry, including high blood pressure and blood sugar, stomach ulcers, depression, cataracts, and osteoporosis.2 Like DMARDs, corticosteroid treatments also suppress the immune system.

three filled syringes on table

Analgesics

Analgesics are available over the counter, like acetaminophen, and by prescription, like duloxetine. They address discomfort without interfering with the body’s inflammatory response. While over-the-counter analgesics may lead to fewer or less severe side effects than other options like NSAIDs, long-term analgesic use can cause liver damage or failure.7

Opioids

Opioids, a subset of analgesics, are sometimes prescribed for special or severe cases of joint pain that haven’t responded to other treatments. While they do offer effective relief from acute discomfort, they can cause drowsiness, confusion, slowed reaction time, and balance impairment, increasing the likelihood of falls and serious injury. In addition, opioids are highly addictive and can cause death by overdose. It’s estimated that two million adults in the United States struggle with opioid addiction.8 The American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons holds the position that “the use of opioids for the treatment of osteoarthritis of the hip and knee should be avoided and reserved for only exceptional circumstances.”10

Additional risks

Prescription drugs for joint pain relief can exacerbate certain health risks and pre-existing medical conditions, including but not limited to liver disease, stomach problems, high blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes. They can also cause reactions when combined with other drugs, medicines, or supplements, or substances like alcohol and tobacco. Some drugs may cause birth defects and are not recommended for women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive.3 Others carry the risk of addiction and/or overdose.

For these reasons, starting prescription drugs to alleviate joint discomfort requires serious consideration and a well-structured treatment plan with guidance and supervision from a medical professional. As some drugs, like DMARDs, can prevent the progression of certain diseases that cause soreness in the joints, it may be possible to lower the dosage or even phase out drug treatment over time. However, long-term lifestyle adjustments are most likely necessary to impede further joint degeneration once drug treatment has stopped.

middle aged woman reviewing medical chart with doctor

Maintaining a clean, nutritious diet that excludes alcohol and added sugar can help control conditions that cause joint pain, and regular physical activity and low-impact exercise can relieve stiffness, build muscle mass, and increase heart and lung strength.9 Weight loss in overweight joint discomfort sufferers can ease stress and pressure on joints, relieving distress and encouraging easier movement.

Give your joints the nourishment they need

Diseases that cause joint soreness, inflammation, and degeneration may require prescription drug treatment. But the root of many cases of joint discomfort can be attributed simply to wear and tear over time. In these cases, making healthy lifestyle changes and supplementing with nutrients that support healthy joint formation can help to alleviate stress and encourage more comfortable movement. The U.S. Doctors’ Clinical bestseller Arthro-7 is a clinically proven joint support formula that contains ingredients like turmeric, collagen, MSM, and bromelain to promote strong tissues, cushioned joints, and healthy inflammation responses.*

In conjunction with a nutrient-dense diet and regular physical activity, Arthro-7 provides continuous nourishment for comfortable movement and restored mobility.* With targeted support at the molecular level, Arthro-7 delivers natural compounds that help to prevent calcium deposits and encourage the synthesis of new cartilage for a healthy, active lifestyle.* Try it today and see the difference Arthro-7 can make in your life!

two middle aged adults smiling while running

*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

 

SOURCES

  1. https://www.everydayhealth.com/rheumatoid-arthritis/treatment/medication-pros-and-cons/
  2. https://www.healthline.com/health/osteoarthritis/medications-list
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK384457/
  4. https://www.rheumatoidarthritis.org/treatment/costs/
  5. https://khn.org/news/arthritis-drugs-show-how-u-s-drug-prices-defy-economics/
  6. https://www.webmd.com/rheumatoid-arthritis/jak-inhibitors-rheumatoid-arthritis
  7. https://www.pharmacytimes.com/publications/issue/2017/August2017/otc-pain-medications-the-pros-and-cons
  8. https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/the-downside-of-taking-pills-to-treat-chronic-pain
  9. https://www.webmd.com/osteoarthritis/oa-pain-relief-risks-benefits
  10. http://www.aahks.org/position-statements/opioid-use-for-the-treatment-of-osteoarthritis-of-the-hip-and-knee/

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