Management of Arthritis


This section covers the first-line management of patients with:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Inflammatory arthritis e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, reactive arthritis, spondyloarthropathy, crystal arthritis.

More information can be found in the British Society for Rheumatology website.

Assessment / monitoring

Refer to rheumatology services for further advice regarding the assessment and management of patients with inflammatory arthritis and in cases where there are diagnostic difficulties. This should be done as soon as possible after presentation.

This section does not address the management of septic arthritis. All cases of suspected septic arthritis should be referred to rheumatology or orthopaedics depending on local protocol.

General management

  • Exercise: All patients should receive physiotherapy advice regarding joint protection, exercise and occupational therapy input.
  • Weight control: All patients should receive advice regarding maintaining ideal body weight.

Treatment options

A. Pain control

1. Non-opioid and weak opioid analgesics

Paracetamol oral 1g 4–6 hourly (maximum 4g in 24 hours)

  • Paracetamol is as effective as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in many patients with osteoarthritis. Consider dose reduction of paracetamol in patients with low body weight (≤50kg), renal / hepatic impairment or glutathione deficiency (chronic malnourishment, chronic alcoholism) to 15mg/kg/dose up to four times daily (max 60mg/kg/day). An example is: dose reducing to paracetamol oral 500mg four times daily. N.B. Patients with chronic liver failure may require a further dose adjustment (7.5mg/kg/dose, max 30mg/kg/day)
  • If response is inadequate to simple analgesia, NSAIDs may be tried but should be stopped if ineffective.


(Also see 'Oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory guidelines' on NHSGGC StaffNet / Clinical info / Clinical Guidelines Directory (link only active if accessing via NHS computer).

  • Ibuprofen oral 400–600mg three times daily after food or
  • Naproxen oral 250–500mg twice daily after food

NSAIDs are associated with risk of significant toxicity. Brief cautions and contraindications which should be noted (see NHSGGC oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory guidelines for further prescribing notes) include:

  • Assess each patient's individual risk factors, including any history of cardiovascular and gastrointestinal (GI) illness before prescribing. Avoid or minimise use of NSAIDs in patients with ischaemic heart disease and hypertension. 
  • Always use the lowest possible dose of NSAID for the shortest possible duration.
  • Avoid combinations of NSAIDs and, where possible, concomitant use of NSAIDs and nephrotoxic drugs.
  • Use with caution in mild renal impairment and hepatic impairment 
  • NSAIDs are contraindicated in moderate to severe renal failure, severe cardiac failure, severe hepatic failure and active peptic ulcer disease.
  • Consider gastroprotection in those patients at increased GI risk (see table 1 below). Remember patients remain at risk of perforation and bleeds despite gastroprotection.
  • Avoid, if possible, the co-administration of low dose aspirin with NSAIDs due to increased GI risk. Non-selective NSAIDs may also antagonise the antiplatelet effects of low dose aspirin.
Table 1 – People at high risk of serious NSAID induced GI adverse effects
  • Age ≥65 years
  • History of gastroduodenal ulcer, perforation or GI bleeding.
  • Concomitant use of medication known to increase risk of upper GI adverse events e.g. aspirin, anticoagulants, corticosteroids, selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.
  • Serious co-morbidity e.g. cardiovascular disease, renal or hepatic impairment, diabetes, hypertension.
  • Requirement for prolonged duration of NSAID use.
  • High dose NSAID use (ibuprofen 2400mg per day or naproxen 1g per day).


  • Proton pump inhibitors e.g.:
    • Omeprazole oral 20mg each day or
    • Lansoprazole oral 15–30mg each day.
  • Gastroprotection is only required for the duration of the NSAID course.

COX-2 selective NSAIDs (Coxibs)


  • Celecoxib oral 100mg twice daily or
  • Etodolac oral 600mg daily (in 1–2 divided doses).

Coxibs are associated with less GI toxicity than NSAIDs but with increased cardiovascular risk. The following should be noted:

  • Coxibs should only be prescribed for patients with high risk of GI toxicity and low cardiac risk.
  • Coxibs should not be prescribed for patients taking concomitant aspirin.
  • For patients requiring a proton pump inhibitor, a traditional NSAID should be used in preference to a Coxib.

B. Disease Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs (DMARDs) and immunosuppressant therapies

Many patients with inflammatory arthritides or connective tissue diseases will be receiving one or more DMARDs or immunosuppressants including biologic agents such as tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNFα) inhibitors. These medicines are usually initiated on the advice of rheumatology.

DMARDs include:

  • Methotrexate (once weekly preparation, orally or subcutaneously)
  • Sulfasalazine EC
  • Hydroxychloroquine
  • Leflunomide
  • Azathioprine
  • Ciclosporin

Guidelines on DMARD monitoring (BSR / BHPR) are available on the British Society for Rheumatology website.

Biologics include:

  • Etanercept SC
  • Adalimumab SC
  • Infliximab IV
  • Rituximab IV
  • Tocilizumab* IV/SC
  • Sarilumab* SC
  • Abatacept IV/SC
  • Certolizumab Pegol SC
  • Golimumab SC

JAK inhibitors include:

  • Baricitinib oral
  • Tofacitinib oral

Biosimilar agents are available e.g. Benepali (etanercept) or in development.

Biologics and JAK inhibitors are hospital prescribed medications and therefore may not be listed on a patient's Emergency Care Summary (ECS). Be aware that the dose frequency for these medicines can be variable e.g. daily, weekly, 4 weekly or longer. Check carefully before prescribing. 

*Tocilizumab and sarilumab suppress CRP and ESR therefore these markers are not reliable to measure in intercurrent illness. 

Further information

DMARDs, biologics and immunosuppressant therapies may increase the patient's risk of infection and/or mask the typical signs of sepsis. Discuss with rheumatology if:

  • Infection is suspected on treatment with DMARD, biologic or immunosuppressant therapy - withhold drug until it has been discussed.
  • Changes to DMARD, biologic or immunosuppressant therapy doses are planned when a patient is admitted for other reasons e.g. patient going for surgery.
  • Long-term DMARD, biologic or immunosuppressant therapy is stopped e.g. due to side effects.
  • A DMARD, biologic or immunosuppressant therapy prescription is unclear – withhold drug until it has been discussed.


Content last reviewed March 2020.