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Is It a Good Idea to Self-Treat Arthritis?


Updated January 14, 2009

Question: Is It a Good Idea to Self-Treat Arthritis?
You may be inclined to self-treat arthritis when you first start to experience symptoms of the disease. Many people self-treat with over-the-counter arthritis pain relievers. How long is it safe to self-treat before you should be diagnosed by a doctor?

You Still Need a Doctor

Your first thoughts when arthritis strikes are "Why me?" and "What can I do to stop the pain?" You want it to stop and stop soon -- so you reach for what's easiest to find -- over-the-counter pain relievers or dietary supplements. Initially, that's fine, but you really should be diagnosed by a doctor and find out if an additional or different medications or treatments would help. You need a doctor to monitor your progress as well.

Over-the-Counter Oral Treatment Options

You've seen the products on your drugstore shelves. Arthritis Strength Tylenol, Advil, Aleve, and aspirin. They are less-than-prescription strength but that doesn't make the medications without risk. Even over-the-counter NSAIDs, like Advil and Aleve, can have side effects -- or you may not be taking a dose high enough to achieve a therapeutic benefit. A doctor can help you recognize certain important aspects of taking NSAIDs too -- for example -- elderly or people with a history of kidney problems may need to take a lower dose to avoid complications. So, while it's easy to drive to the drugstore and pick a product off the shelf that touts arthritis relief, remember that more goes into a decision of what's the most appropriate treatment for you.

According to instructions on the packaging, oral arthritis medications that are available without a prescription should not be taken for more than 10 days without consulting a doctor. If there are any problems, don't wait the full 10 days before calling your doctor.

If the medication you have chosen has been helping, it will be tempting to just carry on with the self-treatment. But you still need to be evaluated by your doctor to have the affected joint assessed for injury or joint damage.

Topical Treatment Options

You can also go into your local drugstore and find a slew of topical creams, ointments and gels that claim they effectively treat minor aches and pains. These products may actually have some value treating acute pain and stiffness. But the products should not be used for more than 7 days without consulting a doctor.

Bottom Line

For limited periods of time, you may be able to self-treat arthritis just to make yourself more comfortable. But you need a long-term plan and that begins by seeing your doctor for an accurate diagnosis. Your treatment plan will depend on the type of arthritis you have. For example, there are medications and treatments for rheumatoid arthritis that are not used to treat osteoarthritis.

Basically, you need to know if you are using products correctly. You need also to know if you should be doing more than you are doing to prevent permanent joint damage.

Remember, what seems easiest or most accessible isn't necessarily an appropriate treatment for your symptoms. Seek the guidance and expertise of a doctor or rheumatologist.

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