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A Joint Effort: A Provider's Guide To Orthopedic Pain Options

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on April 17, 2022.

Orthopedic Health Care Provider and Partner

For your patients who suffer from bone or nerve-related pain, an orthopedic's expertise is important to keep them symptom-free with an active lifestyle.

In addition to prescribed physical therapy and exercise, drug therapy for orthopedic conditions can relieve the pain, swelling and paresthesias due to various conditions, such as:

Drug Therapy for Orthopedic Conditions

While drug therapy is not the only pain treatment an orthopedic specialist can offer, it may provide significant relief and allow your patient to return to daily activities, allow the ability to participate in a much-needed physical therapy, and have an increased quality of life.

Below is a list of drug classes commonly used for bone pain, nerve pain, and other painful orthopedic conditions:

First Line Rescue: Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are one of the most common classes of drugs used by patients. In fact, for mild to moderate bone pain, this might be the only drug treatment needed.

Common over-the-counter (OTC) names include:

In certain circumstances, you might want to select a prescription agent if an adequate trial of an OTC agent isn't effective for your patient. These might include generic (and more affordable) NSAIDs such as:

In May 2018 the FDA approved, Consensi (amlodipine besylate and celecoxib), an antihypertensive calcium channel blocker and NSAID combination for the treatment of both hypertension and osteoarthritis pain. Consensi is given once daily, and may be a more convenient formulation to treat both high blood pressure and arthritis pain at the same time, thereby enhancing adherence. But because both amlodipine and celecoxib are available generically, it may be much more expensive or insurance may not cover it.

Certain NSAIDs, such as ketorolac, regular dose aspirin and indomethacin may be linked with a higher risk for gastrointestinal side effects such as bleeding, especially in the elderly.

Protect Your Patients From NSAID Side Effects

Many patients require long-term use of NSAIDs for chronic pain. NSAIDs include these important precautions, with many contained in FDA boxed warnings such as:

  • Gastrointestinal pain or perforation, dyspepsia or hemorrhagic ulcers; high risk in the elderly per boxed warnings.
  • Renal damage, decreased urine output, fluid retention, edema.
  • Cardiovascular issues: possibly fatal myocardial infarction, stroke, CHF, exacerbated hypertension, especially with long-term use, per boxed warning.
  • Contraindication in CABG setting, per boxed warning.
  • Allergic reaction/anaphylaxis.

For example, view the ibuprofen Boxed Warning here.

NSAIDs are not without important side effects, but can be quickly effective, safe, and affordable medications with proper patient education. If your patients are older or have risk factors for GI bleeding, consider the combination of an NSAID with a proton-pump inhibitor like omeprazole or misoprostol, or use of celecoxib (Celebrex). In many older patients, use of NSAIDs should be avoided complelely based on their overall risk factors.

Acetaminophen: Safer, In Some Cases

Non-narcotic drugs like the NSAIDs and even acetaminophen (Tylenol) are useful adjuncts to help control pain; however, acetaminophen does not lower inflammation like the NSAIDs. In many patients, the use of acetaminophen may be worth a trial.

Some advantages to acetaminophen side effects that offer an advantage over NSAIDs for bone pain include:

  • Lower renal risk
  • Easier on the GI than NSAIDs
  • Limited cardiovascular safety issues

However, it's important that patients do not exceed the recommended daily acetaminophen dose and avoid excessive alcohol to help prevent serious hepatotoxicity.

Warn patients to check for acetaminophen in other prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, too. In January 2014, FDA required all prescription acetaminophen combination pain products to contain no more than 325 mg of acetaminophen to lessen overdose risk and liver injury.

Total acetaminopohen doses should not exceed 1 gram every 4 to 6 hours and 3 to 4 grams (total) per day.

Topical NSAIDs for Pain

Several guidelines, including the Beers Criteria, recommend against oral use of NSAIDs in older patients over 65 years due to a higher risk of GI bleeding.

Topical NSAIDs in the form of diclofenac solutions, gels, or patches are available for joint pain and might be a reasonable option. These agents include:

Clinical studies suggest these agents are effective for osteoarthritis knee pain, as well as osteoarthritis in the hands, wrists, elbows, ankles, or feet. Topical agents may be as effective as that achieved with oral NSAIDs in some patients.

Systemic absorption is significantly (but not totally) lowered with topical use. For example, the amount of diclofenac sodium that is systemically absorbed from Voltaren Gel is on average 6% of the systemic exposure from an oral form of diclofenac sodium. Average peak plasma concentrations are 158 times lower than with the oral treatment.

Nonetheless, the combined use of topical NSAIDs and oral NSAIDs is not recommended in most circumstances. In one Phase 3 study as reported by the manufacturer, Pennsaid used in combination with oral diclofenac, when compared to oral diclofenac alone, resulted in a higher rate of rectal bleeding (3% vs. less than 1%), and more frequent abnormal creatinine (12% vs. 7%), urea (20% vs. 12%) and hemoglobin (13% vs. 9%).

Capsaicin: Red Hot Chili Peppers

Capsaicin is the active ingredient that gives the heat to a chili pepper. It has been used as a topical analgesic in over-the-counter (OTC) products such as:

  • Zostrix
  • Icy Hot Arthritis Therapy
  • Salonpas

to relieve pain in arthritis and for postherpetic neuralgia. Patients can buy these OTC products without a prescription at the pharmacy.

A capsaicin prescription patch known as Qutenza is now FDA-approved for postherpetic neuralgia. Qutenza, applied by a health care provider, can provide up to 3 months of pain relief following a single one-hour application. Qutenza is not a narcotic medication and is unlikely to cause drowsiness or have drug interactions. If needed, treatments can be reapplied for your patient every three months.

Antidepressants: An Adjunct For Refractory Cases

Pain is hard on your patient's body -- and their mind, too. Changes in their normal daily activities can lead to frustration and even depression. In fact, 20% of people with chronic pain are also depressed. Plus, the inability to move without pain can make orthopedic treatments -- including physical therapy -- difficult to tolerate and slow down recovery. Antidepressants can lessen symptoms of pain, depression, and provide a more restful sleep.

Common antidepressants used for orthopedic pain relief include:

Be aware that antidepressants can lead to thoughts about self-harm and suicide in some patients, especially in teens, so careful monitoring is warranted. Be sure to run a drug interaction screen with all new medications prescribed to your patients; antidepressants are notorious for serious drug interactions and CYP450 warnings.

Anticonvulsants: Nerve Pain Relief

Anticonvulsants, which inhibit central neurotransmitter release, have been shown in trials to be effective for postherpetic neuralgia, neuropathic pain, and fibromyalgia.

Anticonvulsants are considered first line over opioids or tramadol for neuropathic pain management. Treatment examples include:

Pregabalin has a quicker onset of action than gabapentin, but is scheduled as a C-V controlled substance by the DEA due to the possible risk of abuse. Starting treatment at lower doses and slowly titrating up can help lessen side effects like dizziness and sedation.

Corticosteroids: Local or Short-Term Relief

Corticosteroids can be taken by mouth or given by injection for joint pain and inflammation.

Orally, treatment is usually a short-term tapering dose for one to two weeks. Long-term oral corticosteroids can lead to serious adverse effects including weight gain, lowered immunity, elevated blood glucose, GI ulceration, and corticosteroid-induced osteoporosis. Localized injections directly into the joint may provide pain relief over a longer period of time, up to six months, but not all patients may have success with injections.

Frequently used corticosteroids include:

In 2017, the FDA approved Zilretta (triamcinolone acetonide extended-release injectable suspension), a long-acting triamcinolone for the management of osteoarthritis (OA) pain of the knee. It is used as a single dose and is not intended for repeat administration. Zilretta provides steady concentrations of drug locally to prolong the duration of OA knee pain relief for up to 12 weeks.

Skeletal Muscle Relaxants

Skeletal muscle relaxants include drugs such as:

Muscle relaxants are sometimes effective in treating painful muscle spasms that may be associated with neck or spine pain and may be most helpful when used at night.

These drugs may cause sedation and dizziness and are usually for short-term use; avoid use with other CNS depressants. For some patients, 3 to 4 days use only at bedtime to lessen the acute phase and help with sleep may be one option, combined with NSAID use in the daytime.

In the US, carisoprodol is classified as a schedule IV controlled substance in most states due to the potential for abuse.

Osteoporosis: A Risk of Fractures

Osteoporosis is the thinning of bone tissue and loss of bone density over time, which can raise a patient's risk for a bone fracture. In fact, bones can fracture even during normal motions, such as bending over or coughing. Osteoporotic bone fractures commonly occur in the wrist, hip and spine.

A variety of drugs are FDA-approved to treat and prevent worsening of osteoporosis. Mechanisms include reducing bone loss while boosting calcium, or by altering the cycle of bone formation and breakdown.

Osteoporosis treatments include:


Hyaluronic acid is naturally present in joint fluid and acts as a lubricant and shock absorber to help joints slide more easily. In osteoarthritis sufferers, this fluid may get thin and not work as well, as commonly seen in patients with knee pain.

Hyaluronic acid derivatives (viscosupplementation agents) can be injected into the knee joint to help relieve discomfort and decrease pain for up to six months. These agents are sometimes used in patients who cannot tolerate NSAID side effects, or those awaiting joint surgery.

Common examples include:

Chronic Pain Guidelines: Use Should Be Individualized for Patients

Chronic, nonmalignant pain management is a specialized area that requires the clinical expertise of the treating physician. Expert guidelines can help to answer many questions regarding opioid use and discontinuation. However, guidelines are exactly that -- and should always be interpreted with the individual patient in mind.

The FDA has announced an extensive review of the agency’s approach to narcotic analgesics to guide clinicians in pain treatment choices. Label changes on opioids medications via the Opioid Analgesic Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) have been updated. Also, the CDC has published expert opionion guidelines for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain.

In April 2019 the FDA issued a warning that rapid discontinuation of opioid treatments in patients who are dependent upon them could lead to serious harm.

  • Counsel patients not to discontinue their opioid pain treatment without first talking with their healthcare provider about the need for a gradual tapering regimen.
  • Remind patients that stopping the use of opioids abruptly or tapering the dose too fast can lead to withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, and thoughts of suicide.
  • Tapering regimens should always be tailored to the specific needs of the patient.

Opioids: The Call to Limit Prescribing

Even though the ongoing call by the CDC and FDA to limit opioid use in patients with chronic pain is reasonable, some patients will still have severe pain requiring a narcotic-type medication.

Using opioids is not a decision a health care provider should take lightly, as narcotic pain relievers can be rapidly habit-forming, abused, illegally diverted, and tied with many side effects like sedation, severe constipation, and nausea. For mild-to-moderate, short-term pain, other analgesics such as NSAIDs should be prescribed when at all possible.

When needed, opioids may be combined short-term with other non-opioid pain relievers, like acetaminophen or NSAIDs, in an effort to lower doses, limit side effects and supplement pain relief.

Tramadol: Consider the Risk

Tramadol (ConZip, Qdolo, Ultram) is a commonly prescribed analgesic with partial action at the mu opioid receptor, plus serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibition.

When originally marketed, tramadol was thought to be an opioid analgesic with a lower risk for dependence. However, since that time, it has been linked with drug abuse and misuse, addiction, and even fatal overdoses. Due to these issues, in 2014 all forms of tramadol were placed into schedule IV of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

Learn More: Tramadol: 9 Things You Should Know

  • Tramadol is related to other narcotics; combined alcohol use should be avoided.
  • Psychological and physical dependence, drug-seeking behavior, addiction, and withdrawal have been documented.
  • Consider prescribing naloxone if risk of accidental exposure or overdose.
  • Withdrawal may occur if tramadol is abruptly discontinued.
  • The side effect profile is similar to other opioids, but seizure risk may be elevated in some patients.
  • The safety and effectiveness of tramadol in pediatric patients have not been established. Tramadol is contraindicated in children younger than 12 years of age AND in children younger than 18 years of age following tonsillectomy and/or adenoidectomy. Avoid the use of tramadol in adolescents 12 to 18 years of age who have other risk factors that may increase their sensitivity to the respiratory depressant effects of tramadol.

Related: View the Ultram Boxed Warning

Pain Management is a Team Effort

Orthopedic pain control is not a one-step task. Pain management is a joint effort for you and your patient - not only with medications, but with a trusted, caring, and knowledgeable health care team.

Doctors, nurses, pharmacists and physical therapists can work together to help identify, manage, and safely control pain using an evidence-based approach.

Therapy should be started in a stepwise fashion, utilizing combined medications, if needed, to take advantage of different and additive mechanism of actions, lowered doses, and a reduction of side effects.

Opioid prescribing should be limited when possible for chronic orthopedic pain, and short-term use should be the norm while alternative strategies are attempted. Nonpharmacologic therapy, such as ice, heat, physical and exercise therapy should be employed.

Caregivers, as well as patients, should be involved from the outset with pain management education, treatment plans and therapy goals.

Finished: A Joint Effort: A Provider's Guide To Orthopedic Pain Options

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.