The most common form of joint pain, osteoarthritis, is a breakdown of cartilage that lines and cushions joints. It’s more common in older people but can develop sooner in those who have had a joint injury or do continuous high-impact, vigorous activities that involve pounding on the joints. Being overweight can also stress joints, increasing wear and tear on the knees and hips.

What to Do First

Try gentle exercise. A review of 32 studies found that it relieves knee pain as well as medication. Low-impact activities were most effective. Try walking or swimming combined with stretching and strengthening activities. Also consider acupuncture. Although the evidence about its efficacy is mixed, in a Consumer Reports survey almost half of those who tried acupuncture for osteoarthritis said that it helped. For joint pain flare-ups, try over-the-counter NSAID medications, such as ibuprofen or naproxen. You may find relief from applying hot or cold packs, or topical preparations that cause heating or cooling sensations. (But don’t do both heat and topicals; you risk getting burned.)

If That Doesn’t Work

Try prescription-strength ibuprofen or naproxen. If you have pain only in one or two joints, you could try a topical prescription NSAID, such as diclofenac gel (Voltaren), drops (Pennsaid), or patches (Flector). Topical treatments are also a good alternative if regular NSAID pills make your stomach upset or if you’re at risk for ulcers, gastrointestinal bleeding, a heart attack, or a stroke.

Get to an Emergency Room

Seek help if a joint becomes extremely painful, swollen, red, and warm to the touch, especially if symptoms develop quickly over a few hours or days. The joint could be infected.

Never Do This

Don’t rely on supplements, such as glucosamine or chondroitin. Numerous studies show they’re no better than a placebo and can interact with other medication, for example, by intensifying the effects of blood thinners, which can cause dangerous bleeding. Also, don’t remain sedentary for more than a day or so. When you experience joint pain and inflammation, modify your activities to stay as active as possible without making your symptoms worse.

Prevent It in the First Place

Stay active and maintain a healthy weight. Losing just 5 percent of your body weight reduces your risk of developing osteoarthritis in the knees.

When the Pain Is Really Bad

You could consider steroid shots or possibly injections of hyaluronic acid, though both provide only modest relief. If after several tries there’s no improvement, surgery may be the next step. Knee replacements and other surgery can change the quality of your life and help you be more active, but there’s a risk of complications, such as infection. And recovery can take months. To increase your odds of the best outcome, look for a surgeon who does at least 50 to 100 surgeries per year, and ask about his or her complication and infection rates.

Editor's Note: This article and related materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

This article also appeared in the June 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.