Treating Arthritis: Try Cheaper Drugs with Less Side Effects

Neil P. Fam, BSc

Arthritis has been called the sleeping giant of Canadian health care. According to Statistics Canada, over 3 million Canadians suffer from osteo-arthritis (OA), with another 300,000 affected by rheumatoid arthritis (RA).1 Together, these diseases represent one of the leading causes of chronic disability, lost productivity and worker absenteeism in Canada.2 As our population ages, more patients are presenting to physicians with musculoskeletal complaints, most of which center around chronic joint pain.

Treatment of the pain of arthritis involves both pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic approaches. Traditionally, treatment of OA and RA has revolved around the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Although these medications are often effective in relieving pain, they are associated with significant gastrointestinal and renal complications. Elderly patients are particularly prone to life-threatening complications such as GI bleeding and perforation. For these reasons, other treatment modalities are often utilized. This article presents an overview of pain management strategies, with a focus on OA, the single most common cause of arthritis in seniors.

OA pain

In the management of osteoarthritic pain in the elderly, the best approach is to begin with therapies that are inexpensive and have a low risk of side effects. The following is a stepwise approach, summarized in Table 1.