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Pain Medications

What Is Pain?

Pain is an unpleasant sensation. Pain can be sharp or dull, burning or numbing, minor or major, acute or chronic. It can be a minor inconvenience or completely disabling.

Both the area of the injury and how the brain deals with signals from the area of pain affect the sensation. Generally, medications try either to stop the transmission of pain from the site of injury or to affect the brain directly.

The tolerance of pain varies greatly from one person to another and the effects of pain medications are different for different people. For this reason, one medication may not be right for everyone with the same injury. For example, an over-the-counter medication for an ankle sprain may be adequate for some, while others will need a more powerful prescription pain reliever. The right pain medication depends on the person experiencing the pain, not on the condition that is causing the pain.

Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs

The most common nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) for pain is ibuprofen. Three NSAIDs are available without a prescription in drug and grocery stores:

Naproxen

  • Aleve

Ibuprofen

  • Advil
  • Children's Advil
  • Children's Motrin
  • Excedrin IB
  • Midol 200
  • Motrin IB
  • Nuprin
  • Pamprin IB

Aspirin

  • Anacin
  • Ascriptin
  • Aspergum
  • Bayer Aspirin
  • Bayer Buffered Aspirin
  • Bayer Low Adult Strength
  • Bufferin
  • Ecotrin
  • Empirin
  • St Joseph Adult Chewable Aspirin

Essentially, aspirin and ibuprofen are short-acting, while the effects of naproxen last longer. This difference means sometimes it takes three to four doses of naproxen before an effect is noted. Because of this difference, it may be better to use ibuprofen for more immediate relief from pain and to use naproxen for long-lasting relief.

Many NSAID medications are available only with a prescription. These include:

This class of drugs is one of the most marketed types of medications by drug companies. No clear evidence exists that the prescribed medicines cost more are any better than those that cost less.

Different NSAIDs also are marketed as being better for certain conditions. An example is indomethacin (Indocin) as a recommended treatment for gout. There is no proof this is true, but some evidence shows that different families of NSAIDs may have a selective effect on a person-to-person basis.

The main side effect of these types of medicines is that they can cause bleeding and irritation in the stomach. This bleeding usually occurs after long-term use but can also occur with short-term use. Long-term use can also affect the kidneys, (for these reasons, acetaminophen is probably safer for long-term use, although taking too much acetaminophen can cause liver damage).

NSAIDs have both a pain-relieving and inflammation-stopping effect. Generally, the pain-relieving effect does not increase with higher doses; thus, 400 mg of Motrin has just as much pain relief as 800 mg of Motrin. A person is more likely to suffer a significant stomach problem with the higher dose.

Consult a doctor if a person taking NSAIDs experiences pain in the stomach, has black stools, or has blood in the stool.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/7/2013

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