Nearly 70% of people aged 50 years and older experience joint pain occasionally, and 60% have some form of arthritis, according to the latest data from the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging. A notable proportion of these patients rely on prescription drugs to manage the pain, but haven’t discussed health risks with their clinicians, researchers have found.

Approximately 45% of poll respondents with arthritis symptoms said they have pain each day, and about half said the pain limits their activities somewhat. Fully 36% reported that it interferes with their day-to-day life.

Self management

Notably, 80% of respondents said they were managing the pain on their own, with 66% of these individuals using non-prescription remedies such as over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen. One quarter take supplements, (such as glucosamine or chondroitin), 11% use cannabidiol and 9% use marijuana. 

But many older adults are using prescription-only non-opioid pain relievers, steroid joint injections, oral steroids, opioids and disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs, reported investigator and rheumatologist Beth Wallace, MD, MS.

Clinical oversight

“There are sizable risks associated with many of these treatment options, especially when taken long-term or in combination with other drugs,” she said in a statement. “Yet 60% of those taking two or more substances for their joint pain said their health care provider hadn’t talked with them about risks, or they couldn’t recall if they had. And 26% of those taking oral steroids hadn’t talked with a provider about the special risks these drugs bring.” 

The study results underscore the importance of clinician-patient conversations about safe use of medications, Wallace said. Clinicians should remind patients that they don’t need to go it alone, she added.

ACR guidelines

The American College of Rheumatology recommends that patients with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis seek to reduce pain medicine’s effect on the stomach, liver, blood pressure, blood sugar, mood and sleep.

ACR guidelines also emphasize weight loss; exercise; self-management programs with arthritis educators and various forms of exercise such as tai chi and yoga. Braces, splints and kinesiotaping are also suggested, as are acupuncture or acupressure; cognitive behavioral therapy and applying heat, cold or topical pain relievers on sore joints.

“Health providers need to raise the topic of joint pain with their older patients, and help them make a plan for care that might work for them,” Wallace concluded.

Related articles:

CDC: Senior care challenges ahead as nearly one-half of U.S. older adults say they have arthritis

Early drug therapy eases exhaustion in rheumatoid arthritis patients: study