Know Your Over-The-Counter Pain Medications

  • September 7, 2023
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  • Health
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  • Chelsea McClure

If you walk down the aisle of your local pharmacy, you may notice a significant share of shelf space dedicated to pain-relieving medications. They may have different labels promising to treat pain from arthritis, injuries, or the common cold. How do you know which to choose for your pain? Most offerings can be broken down into two main groups: non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen.

NSAIDs block a chemical in your body that leads to pain and inflammation. OTC (over the counter) versions of these include Ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin) and Naproxen (Aleve). You may also see a topical, or rub-on version of an NSAID called Diclofenac (Voltaren). Generic versions are just as good as the brand name, and often much cheaper.  These medications do a great job of improving pain and inflammation from arthritis and orthopedic injuries. However, they do have their downsides. All versions of NSAIDs have the potential to cause stomach problems and increased blood pressure. They can be especially risky in people with ulcers, kidney disease, and cardiac problems. They also cannot be taken alongside any blood-thinning medications.

Tylenol, or Acetaminophen, mediates pain messages that are sent to your brain. They do not play a role in decreasing inflammation. However, they can still be used to treat pain, either alone or in conjunction with NSAIDs. Acetaminophen does have fewer side effects, is gentler on the stomach, and does not interfere with blood thinners. It does have the potential to cause liver problems if used long-term, with alcoholic beverages, or if an adult takes more than 3,000mg a day.

Both NSAIDs and Tylenol can be good short-term, at-home treatments for common aches and pains, arthritis, and injuries. However, like I often tell my patients, these are not candy and shouldn’t be taken long-term just because they are freely available due to the possible side effects. A good rule of thumb is to see a medical provider if you are still experiencing symptoms after 10 days of use of over-the-counter medications.