What to Do If Your Joint Pain Isn't Responding to Medication

Person sitting with knee pain

Whether the pain is in your knee, hip or somewhere else, joint pain can range from mild to excruciating. It can also be constant or come and go. But one thing never changes: Chronic joint pain affects your quality of life, causing everyday tasks and activities to feel like obstacles.

When it comes to relieving it, many begin with an over-the-counter medication for joint pain — including pain relievers, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen, or analgesics that can be rubbed onto the skin.

But is this really the right approach to getting long-term joint pain relief?

"Pain that is so severe or persistent that you have to rely on medication frequently likely indicates that there's a larger issue that needs to be addressed," says Dr. John Fackler, an orthopedic surgeon at Houston Methodist. "It's important to consult your doctor if you have pain that's leading to prolonged use of over-the-counter pain relievers or joint pain products."

What to do when over-the-counter medication for joint pain isn't enough

"Over-the-counter pain relievers can provide short-term relief, but they don't treat the cause of your joint pain," explains Dr. Fackler. "They simply reduce or manage your perception of it instead. This might be all you need here and there at the onset of joint pain, but you may eventually find yourself needing to take these medications more and more if your condition progresses."

Dr. Fackler strongly warns against relying on over-the-counter pain relievers longer than a week or so without first checking with your doctor.

"You can certainly overdo it with these medications, especially if they're not adequately relieving your pain," says Dr. Fackler. "At their full strength, these drugs aren't meant for long-term use. For instance, frequent use of ibuprofen and naproxen can irritate your stomach, cause heartburn and even damage your stomach, kidneys, liver and heart."

It's also important to be sure that any pain reliever you're taking doesn't interfere with other medications you take. Your doctor can help confirm.

And rather than relying on pain relievers for an extended period of time, talk to your doctor about how best to treat joint pain that persists.

"Over-the-counter pain relievers are just one of the many tools we have in our arsenal to combat joint pain," says Dr. Fackler. "In reality, it's best to only occasionally turn to these medications as a way to help supplement the other longer-lasting ways of treating joint pain."

8 other ways to relieve joint pain

Taking medication for joint pain isn't the only way to get relief.

"There are many ways to address chronic joint pain, and your doctor can help you understand where to start," says Dr. Fackler.

Other ways to help relieve joint pain include:

  • Exercising and stretching
  • Modifying your diet
  • Losing weight, if you are overweight
  • Applying heat and ice
  • Physical therapy
  • Prescription pain medication
  • Injectable medications
  • Surgery, including joint replacement

For instance, exercise, a healthy diet and weight loss can help improve joint mobility, reduce joint inflammation and lessen the pressure placed on joints — all of which can help relieve joint pain.

Your doctor may also recommend physical therapy, which uses targeted exercises to strengthen muscles around the affected joint and improve its range of motion. This can help further reduce pain and stiffness in the joint.

"Depending on the underlying cause of your joint pain and which remedies you've already tried, your doctor can help you determine what the next steps are for treating your pain," says Dr. Fackler.

For significant joint pain that doesn't respond to more conservative treatment, different methods may be needed.

"Corticosteroid injections can lessen pain for several months," explains Dr. Fackler. "Hyaluronic acid injections take longer to work, but last for six months or longer. Both help reduce the inflammation that's causing stiffness and pain in the joint. There are also some newer treatments, such as platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections, that can also be considered."

Still, despite treatment, you may notice the signs that your joint pain is continuing to affect your daily life — and wonder whether it's time for more aggressive measures.

"Stay in touch with your doctor and let him or her know if your joint pain persists and continues to limit your activity despite treatment," says Dr. Fackler.

When is joint replacement surgery needed to address joint pain?

A hip or knee replacement can improve your quality of life, but deciding to have surgery is a big decision that you don't want to take lightly.

"We always start by addressing joint pain in the most conservative fashion, but surgery may eventually be needed if your pain continues to progress," says Dr. Fackler.

Before joint replacement, chronic joint pain can sometimes be relieved using a minor, outpatient procedure called arthroscopic surgery.

"During arthroscopy surgery, several small incisions are made around the affected joint and a tiny camera and other tools are used to visualize and repair any damage present," explains Dr. Fackler. "This usually involves cleaning and flushing the joint, removing damaged cartilage and loose bone. Recovery is fairly straightforward and people can usually resume activities a few days later."

However, arthroscopic surgery often only provides short-term relief, and a joint replacement may ultimately be needed.

"Joint replacement can be life-changing to those suffering with joint pain," says Dr. Fackler. "However, it's a major surgery with a recovery time you will need to plan for, so it's important to work with your doctor to determine when a joint replacement has become the right decision for you."

Jan. 27, 2022