What You Should Know About NSAIDs for Arthritis

NSAIDs Are Among the Most Commonly Prescribed Arthritis Drugs

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NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) combat arthritis by interfering with the inflammatory process. NSAIDs are a large group of drugs commonly used to treat arthritis because of their:

Woman pouring pills

NSAID Categories

There are three types of NSAIDs:

  • salicylates (both acetylated, such as aspirin, and nonacetylated)
  • traditional NSAIDs
  • COX-2 selective inhibitors

NSAIDs Commonly Used for Arthritis

  • Celebrex (generic name celecoxib)
  • Ibuprofen (brand names include Motrin, Advil, Mediprin, Nuprin, Motrin IB)
  • Mobic (generic name meloxicam)
  • Nalfon (generic name fenoprofen)
  • Naproxen (brand names include Naprosyn, Aleve, Naprelan, Anaprox)

How NSAIDs Work

In simple terms, NSAIDs work by reducing inflammation. They do this by blocking a key enzyme of inflammation called cyclooxygenase, which converts arachidonic acid to prostaglandins. Prostaglandins cause local inflammation. Therefore, by inhibiting cyclooxygenase, NSAIDs reduce inflammation.

A particular NSAID may work better for you than one you tried before—or may not work at all. That's because of something referred to as pharmacokinetic differences—the process by which a drug is absorbed, distributed, metabolized, and eliminated.

More on the Enzyme Cyclooxygenase

There are two forms of cyclooxygenase, known as COX-1 and COX-2. COX-1 is involved in maintaining healthy stomach tissue. COX-2 is the enzyme responsible for inflammation. Both can be important for normal kidney function. Because traditional NSAIDs block both COX-1 and COX-2, they can have unwanted side effects, such as stomach irritation. That's why researchers developed NSAIDS that only block COX-2. These COX-2 selective inhibitors are the newest group of NSAIDs.

Effectiveness of NSAIDs

  • Pain and inflammation sometimes occur in a circadian rhythm (daily rhythmic cycle based on a 24-hour interval). Therefore, NSAIDs may be more effective at certain times.
  • About 60 percent of patients will respond to any single NSAID. A trial period of three weeks should allow you enough time to know if the drug is working for you. Unfortunately, about 10 percent of rheumatoid arthritis patients will find NSAIDs don't work for them.
  • NSAIDs can mask the signs and symptoms of infection.
  • Adverse effects of NSAIDs which can occur at any time include kidney failure, liver dysfunction, bleeding, and gastric (stomach) ulceration.
  • NSAIDs (particularly indomethacin) can interfere with medications used to control high blood pressure and cardiac failure (such as beta-adrenergic antagonists, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, or diuretics).
  • Some research studies suggest long-term NSAID use might actually hasten joint cartilage loss, but more research is needed.

A Word From Verywell

It can not be predicted which NSAID will best serve you. No single NSAID has been proven to be superior over the others for pain relief. Once an NSAID is selected, the dosage should be increased until pain is relieved or until the maximum tolerated dose has been reached. The patient response should be a guideline for selecting the proper dose, using the lowest dose possible to obtain pain relief. Always discuss the benefits and potential risks of NSAIDs with your healthcare provider.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • New England Journal of Medicine, 324(24):1716-1725, 1991
  • The Duke University Medical Center Book of Arthritis, David S. Pisetsky, M.D., Ph.D. 1995.

By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer covering arthritis and chronic illness, who herself has been diagnosed with both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.