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Tylenol Isn’t an Effective Treatment for Arthritis Pain

May 14, 2016

If you have arthritis pain and reach for a Tylenol for relief, you may be doing yourself a disservice.

According to a recent study, Tylenol is only a little bit better than a placebo for treating arthritis pain in the hip or knee. It also doesn’t do much to improve joint function.

The study, conducted by researchers in Switzerland, found that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Advil or Motrin, are better for temporarily relief of osteoarthritis pain.

Researchers reviewed more than 70 clinical trials that took place over a 35-year period and involved 58,000 patients. They examined how well different doses of acetaminophen, the class of drug to which Tylenol belongs, worked to relieve arthritis pain compared to seven different NSAIDs. They found that diclofenac, a type of NSAID that treats pain, migraine and arthritis, was the most effective drug for osteoarthritis pain. However, patients should use diclofenac and other NSAIDs with caution because these pain relievers may increase the risk for heart attack or stroke.

Osteoarthritis, which affects 27 million people every year, is a chronic condition that breaks down cartilage and causes joint inflammation, making it difficult for a person to walk or perform routine activity. The condition can affect any joint, but typically occurs in the knees, hips, neck and lower back. Osteoarthritis also is referred to as degenerative joint disease, which is fitting because the disease is most common among people over the age of 65. According to the Arthritis Foundation, about 50 percent of adults will develop osteoarthritis in their knee at some point in their lives, while 25 percent will develop symptoms in their hips by the time they are 85.

Common symptoms include pain, stiffness and swelling, which is why many people seek over-the-counter medications to manage the condition. But as the study suggests, Tylenol isn’t the best option. Acetaminophen isn’t meant to treat inflammation. These drugs treat various aches (headache, muscle ache and toothache) and reduce fever, but they aren’t anti-inflammatory. Acetaminophen pain relievers also can damage your liver if they are overused.

The makers of Tylenol disagreed with the study’s findings, saying that more than 150 studies have shown that it is effective for treating pain. Still, researchers are urging patients to use NSAIDs to better control osteoarthritis pain and to reduce the dependence on acetaminophen for pain relief. They said even powerful narcotics like Vicodin and Percocet aren’t as effective in treating osteoarthritis pain as NSAIDs like ibuprofen. However, NSAIDs do come with certain side effects, such as stomach issues and potential heart problems or kidney damage with overuse.

If you have mild pain, these over-the-counter medications may be effective for providing short-term relief. However, if your pain is severe and constant, it may be time to see a doctor and get specialized treatment. Physical and occupational therapy to strengthen your joint muscles may be effective, and reduce stress that can worsen joint inflammation. Limited yoga may be helpful to improve movement, but precautions must be taken to avoid putting joints in extreme positions. For severe cases, cortisone injections, bone realignment or joint replacement may be the best options, but consult your doctor first to find out what the best treatment is for your particular case. Pain relievers are a temporary stopgap and you shouldn’t have to live in constant pain. If osteoarthritis is affecting your quality of life, don’t hesitate to get help.