The 5 Main Classes of Arthritis Drugs

Treating rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is important for maintaining your quality of life and minimizing disability. Fortunately, you have a variety of medications to choose from for treating RA-related inflammation and the discomfort it causes.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the joints, causing inflammation of the synovium—the tissue that lines the inside of joints. The pain and swelling that result can be severe and debilitating.

Five main classes of drugs are used for RA, and each one can play a role in treating this painful joint disease.

Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, commonly referred to as NSAIDs, are a large group of drugs primarily prescribed to reduce inflammation, pain, and fever.

NSAIDs work by preventing an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX) from making prostaglandins— hormone-like chemicals involved in inflammation. COX-1 and COX-2 are the two types of these enzymes.

Traditional NSAIDs—such as aspirinnaproxen, and ibuprofen—block both COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes.

Newer NSAIDs, such as Celebrex (celecoxib), block only COX-2 and were developed because COX-1 is known to have a beneficial effect of protecting the stomach lining.

Although most NSAIDs require a prescription, certain ones are available over the counter in reduced strength, such as Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen).


Analgesics are medications that relieve pain. They often are referred to as pain medications or painkillers. This class of drugs includes non-narcotic analgesics such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) as well as opioid narcotics such as hydrocodone. An opioid narcotic called Ultram (tramadol) is thought to have a lower risk of addiction than other opioid narcotics. (However, addiction is still a risk with this drug.)

Acetaminophen is available over the counter as well as by prescription when combined with opioid narcotics. Vicodin, Lortab, and Norco are brand names of medications that contain both hydrocodone and acetaminophen.


Corticosteroids, also called glucocorticoids, are synthetic drugs that mimic the effects of cortisol, a hormone naturally produced by the adrenal gland that affects several functions in the body, including the immune system. Cortisol has the ability to quickly control inflammation by decreasing levels of prostaglandins as well as inflammatory cytokines.

It's important to note that despite their benefits, corticosteroids have the potential for undesirable side effects such as increased appetite, weight gain, fluid retention, and high blood pressure—especially if they're taken for a long period of time or at a high dose.

If your doctor puts you on a corticosteroid, it's important to take it exactly as prescribed.

Disease-Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs

 Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are slow-acting medications that work behind the scenes to slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and reduce the risk of permanent joint damage.

The most commonly prescribed DMARD is methotrexate (sold under the brand names Rheumatrex and Trexall). Other DMARDs include Plaquenil (hydroxychloroquine), Arava (leflunomide), Azulfidine (sulfasalazine), and Otrexup, a single-dose injectable form of methotrexate.

As with all drugs, it is important to be aware of possible side effects. If you notice anything of concern, consult your doctor. You will also have blood tests periodically to monitor your liver enzymes while treated with a DMARD.

Small molecule DMARD including JAK inhibitors are among the newer options. Xeljanz (tofacitinib) is one of these. It works by inhibiting the JAK pathway inside cells that plays a significant role in inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis.


Biologics, short for biologic response modifiers, are the newest type of DMARD. They're genetically engineered from a living organism to provoke a particular response. In other words, biologics target a specific protein or cell that's associated with symptoms and joint damage caused by inflammatory types of arthritis. Most biologics are self-injectable, but some are given intravenously (through a needle into a vein). 

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  1. Meek IL, Van de Laar MA, E Vonkeman H. Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs: An Overview of Cardiovascular Risks. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2010;3(7):2146–2162. Published 2010 Jul 7. doi:10.3390/ph3072146

  2. Arthritis Foundation. Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment.

  3. American Addiction Centers. Is Tramadol Addictive? Can It Cause Withdrawal? Updated September 3, 2019.

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