Let’s face it: when it comes to managing those annoying aches and pains, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Although sometimes you can safely manage pain without going to the doctor, using over-the-counter medications correctly can be confusing.
How do you know what’s best – and safest – for the pain you’re feeling? For example, should you choose aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen? So, before you take this pill, learn how and when to self-treat your pain.
3 main categories of over-the-counter pain products
In order to understand how to choose and use over-the-counter pain relievers correctly, you must first understand the different categories. Over-the-counter pain medications generally fall into three basic categories, says Dr. Hersh Patel, medical director of the interdisciplinary chronic pain management program at Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Delaware.
NSAIDs include pain relievers like aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), and naproxen (Aleve). These drugs work by interfering with the body’s ability to produce chemicals that cause pain and inflammation.
According to Patel, NSAIDs tend to relieve injuries that involve inflammation better than other over-the-counter options. If you are in good overall health and have no kidney, stomach, or heart problems, aspirin is a fast-acting pain medication that doesn’t last very long, like a headache.
However, if you have heart failure, stomach problems like acid reflux, or kidney problems, you should avoid NSAIDs as they can make these conditions worse. Also, NSAIDs can sometimes increase the effects of blood thinners, so check your medications carefully before trying them.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is your best bet when NSAIDs aren’t an option – for example, if you have a peptic ulcer, are allergic to aspirin and related drugs, or have bronchial asthma. It is also a good choice for children under 12 and pregnant or breastfeeding women. Patel says acetaminophen is a great option for older patients, people who have kidney problems, and people who use blood thinners.
Believe it or not, no one really knew how acetaminophen worked for over 100 years after its discovery. Like NSAIDs, it can reduce fever and soothe pain, but it has no effect on inflammation. And although there is now a better understanding of how it works, scientists are still trying to understand how it works on certain parts of the brain to alleviate these ailments.
A few points of caution with acetaminophen: it’s best to take an NSAID if you’re looking for pain relief within six hours of drinking, and it’s always a good idea to review your entire medication list before taking any. acetaminophen, whether prescription or extra. the counter. Indeed, many over-the-counter medications, such as those for coughs and colds, contain acetaminophen in combination with other medications, as do many prescription pain relievers.
This category generally refers to over-the-counter products that the United States Food and Drug Administration classifies as dietary supplements. Examples are magnesium, arnica and turmeric. The good thing about natural supplements is that you can consume many of these products and reap their benefits while following an anti-inflammatory diet.
Studies indicate that magnesium can help your body feel less sensitive to pain, but the amount to take and the best form – spray, pill, powder, tablet, etc. – depends on the individual and what you need it for. For example, excessive ingestion of certain magnesium supplements can cause diarrhea.
Turmeric is known to promote an appropriate inflammatory response, but may enhance the effects of blood thinners.
Arnica has been traditionally used in herbal medicine and homeopathic medicine for hundreds of years, and now you can find arnica creams, gels, ointments, and tablets for pain. Studies show that arnica reduces inflammation and can relieve pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and lower back pain, to name a few. Although there are arnica teas, it is generally not recommended to take arnica in tea form.
Before using any natural product, please consult your pharmacist to help you make an informed decision.
Read the label
Experts agree that looking at the label is the most important thing when choosing an over-the-counter product to relieve those annoying pains.
“Read the drug product labeling specifically for the purpose, uses, warnings, and directions for use sections,” says Rania El-Desoky, assistant clinical professor at the University of Houston College of Pharmacy in Houston. .
But reading the label is only part of the equation. You also need to make sure you fully understand what he’s saying, says Patel. Maybe it warns you not to take the drug if you have a certain medical condition or are taking certain medications. For example, after reading the label, you should understand how much to take at one time, the maximum amount that is safe to take at one time, and how often you can take the medication.
The label gives very specific instructions on taking medication regarding the amount, frequency and duration. It also indicates the circumstances under which it is not safe to take a particular medicine – such as if you have certain health conditions.
“Kidney problems, breathing difficulties, blood pressure problems and gastrointestinal tract discomfort are health issues that can be affected by the effects of over-the-counter medications,” says Patel..
So, if any of the above apply to you, consider asking your doctor or pharmacist for help choosing the right over-the-counter medication. “All medications and supplements have potential side effects,” Patel warns. “For this reason, it is important to know your health and your profile.”
Know when you should see a doctor
According to El-Desoky, understanding when to see a doctor or other qualified medical professional is the biggest pitfall of over-the-counter pain management. “You need to know when to contact a health care provider because there are many exclusions when self-treating pain,” she explains.
A headache that lasts more than 10 days, being pregnant and having pain or showing signs of infection, such as fever, are just a few examples of when you should consult your pharmacist or doctor before using aspirin or another pain reliever to ease your agony.
El-Desoky also strongly encourages patients to speak with their pharmacists about their pain, medical history, whether they smoke or drink, and current medications to ensure they are eligible for self-treatment for sale. free.
Do not take more OTC for longer than necessary
For Patel, the biggest concern with over-the-counter medications is taking medications for longer than the label or their healthcare professional recommends. “Most pain medications attempt to treat the symptom, but these medications usually do a poor job of treating the actual injury,” says Patel.
Your best bet for long-term relief? When taking over-the-counter pain relievers, use them in combination with other treatments such as exercise, stress reduction, and weight loss.
One of the best things Patel says you can do is see a pain management specialist to diagnose your injury and create a multi-pronged plan for pain relief.
The saying that less is more doesn’t just apply to makeup. The same goes for medication, which means you should never take more than the recommended amount.
Acetaminophen is a classic example. If your liver is healthy, you shouldn’t take more than 4 grams or 4,000 milligrams per day. But if you have liver damage, you shouldn’t take more than 2 grams or 2,000 milligrams per day. Any more than these amounts in either situation and you could damage your liver.
Also, alcohol and acetaminophen don’t mix well, so be sure to avoid acetaminophen altogether if you plan to drink in the near future. An overdose of aspirin can be fatal, and children under 12 should avoid taking this drug. Children in this age group are at risk of developing Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious condition that can cause liver damage or even death if left untreated.
“Sometimes a patient will overuse over-the-counter pain medication in hopes of relief, but pain that doesn’t get better is likely a sign they should see a doctor,” El-Desoky warns.
One way to avoid overdoing it is to periodically reassess your pain to see if it improves. “You should reassess your pain from time to time to avoid taking more medication for longer than you actually need,” says El-Desoky.
Is any class of over-the-counter pain relievers better?
The answer? It depends. The type of pain, location, and specific factors, including your medical history and current medications, all affect which type of over-the-counter medication is your best bet. For example, NSAIDs may be ideal for patients associated with inflammation, but they may worsen kidney problems and blood pressure if you have severe kidney failure.
“All medications and supplements have potential side effects,” says Patel. “For this reason, it’s important to know your health profile and choose the medication that’s best for you when you’re in pain.”
This also includes seeking the advice of a medical professional to find the optimal medication for you. In the end, sometimes it takes a team effort to come up with the best answer.