Pain relievers are medicines that reduce or relieve headaches, sore muscles, arthritis, or other aches and pains. There are many different pain medicines, and each one has advantages and risks. Some types of pain respond better to certain medicines than others. Each person may also have a slightly different response to a pain reliever.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are good for many types of pain. There are two main types of OTC pain medicines: acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Aspirin, naproxen (Aleve), and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) are examples of OTC NSAIDs.
If OTC medicines don’t relieve your pain, your doctor may prescribe something stronger. Many NSAIDs are also available at higher prescription doses. The most powerful pain relievers are opioids. They are very effective, but they can sometimes have serious side effects. There is also a risk of addiction. Because of the risks, you must use them only under a doctor’s supervision.
There are many things you can do to help ease pain. Pain relievers are just one part of a pain treatment plan.
The goal of chronic pain treatment is to increase function and quality of life. Different types of medicines help people who have different types of pain. For instance, short-acting medicines treat pain that comes and goes. Long-acting medicines treat constant pain.
The most common medicines are listed below. Each one may have side effects. These can range from mild to severe. It’s important to follow your doctor’s orders on how to use your pain medicine. If you have questions about side effects or about how much medicine to take, ask your doctor or pharmacist.
Acetaminophen helps many kinds of chronic pain. One brand name is Tylenol. It also is found in many over-the-counter and prescription pain medicines. If you’re not careful, you could take more acetaminophen than is good for you. Too much acetaminophen can cause liver damage, especially if you drink alcohol. Tell your doctor if you have to take more than 2 acetaminophen pills a day.
Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)
Other drugs that help with pain are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Examples include aspirin, ibuprofen (two brand names: Motrin, Advil), and naproxen (one brand name: Aleve). NSAIDs come in both over-the-counter and prescription forms. These medicines can be taken sometimes or every day. When taken regularly, they build up in the blood to fight inflammation (swelling) and give general pain relief.
Always take NSAIDs with food or milk because the most common side effects are related to the stomach. Other side effects include:
- increased bruising.
- risk of bleeding in the stomach.
- kidney damage (when taken for long periods of time).
- high blood pressure.
- interference with blood pressure medicines.
If you take other pain medicines, do not take NSAIDs without talking to your doctor first.
Providers rarely prescribe narcotics or opioids to treat chronic pain. This is because they are highly addictive. Currently, there is an opioid crisis in the United States. People who become addicted can develop severe symptoms, such as increased pain, depression, or suicidal thoughts. They may begin to abuse other substances or their behaviors could become harmful or violent. Addicts are at risk of misusing or overdosing on narcotics, which can cause death. Talk to your provider about all risks of narcotics before starting a new medicine.
If your provider does prescribe a narcotic, be sure to follow their directions. Do not drive or operate heavy machinery when taking narcotics. Do not use alcohol as well. Tell your provider if you have side effects from narcotics. These may include nausea, constipation, and trouble focusing or thinking clearly. Your provider can prescribe an anti-nausea drug or laxative to help with side effects.