When we feel aches and pains, we may reach for over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication for relief. In fact, research shows that 81 percent of adults use OTC medications to treat minor ailments. These pain relievers can be effective, but they do come with risks and side effects, particularly if used incorrectly.
Common OTC Pain Relievers
Most OTC pain relievers fall into two main groups:
● Acetaminophen. This medication (Tylenol or store brands) works by acting on pain receptors in the brain, helping reduce pain. Acetaminophen is best for relieving headaches and arthritis pain.
● Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs block the production of certain body chemicals that cause pain and inflammation. They are best for reducing joint and muscle pain, menstrual cramps and certain headaches. Common NSAIDs include ibuprofen (such as Advil and Motrin), aspirin compounds (such as Excedrin) and naproxen sodium (such as Aleve).
Some over-the-counter medications combine both acetaminophen and NSAIDs, and certain OTC headache medications also contain caffeine.
Dosage Key for Pain Relievers
There are many different strengths and formulas of OTC pain medications available, so read the labels carefully to be certain what you are taking. As with any medication, it is important to follow the recommended dosage.
A typical dose of acetaminophen is one to two 500 mg tablets up to four times a day. You can take acetaminophen every four to six hours.
Maximum single dose: 1,000 mg
Maximum daily dose: 3,000 mg
Dosage recommendations for NSAIDS vary depending on the specific formula and strength of the medication you’re taking. You can take most NSAIDs every six to eight hours.
Maximum daily doses of NSAIDs are:
Ibuprofen maximum dose: 1,200 mg
Naproxen sodium maximum dose: 750 mg
No matter which OTC pain reliever you use, you should take the lowest possible dose each day to lower your risk of side effects and complications. Increase the amount you take as needed, according to the product label directions.
Potential Health Problems
Most people think OTC pain relievers are safe because they don’t need a prescription to use them. While this is mostly true when the medications are used as directed, they do come with some risks. The risks are greater if you take more than the recommended dosage, are taking other medications or have certain medical conditions.
Risks of Taking Acetaminophen
Acetaminophen is metabolized by the liver. If you take too much all at once or for longer than the recommended period (10 to 14 days), toxins can build up in the body and lead to liver damage. In the United States, nearly 50,000 emergency room visits are due to acetaminophen overdose or toxicity, and it is the most common cause of acute liver failure.
Taking too much acetaminophen can cause:
● Abdominal pain
● Liver disease/failure
If you have liver disease, you should not take acetaminophen. Drinking alcohol while taking acetaminophen increases the risk of developing potentially serious liver problems.
If you are taking prescription medications, ask your doctor or pharmacist if you can safely take acetaminophen with them.
Risks of NSAIDs
NSAIDs are effective to ease pain, but they have some drawbacks. Taking NSAIDs for more than 10 days, or at higher doses than recommended, can lead to cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and kidney problems.
Excessive use of NSAIDs can increase your risk of:
● Bruising and bleeding
● Cardiovascular problems (such as heart attack and stroke)
● Stomach bleeding
● Peptic ulcers
● Upset stomach
● Drug interactions
Talk to your doctor before you take NSAIDs if you are on any prescription medications, because NSAIDs can have harmful interactions with some medications.
Avoid taking NSAIDs if you have high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease, gastrointestinal conditions like inflammatory bowel disease or are currently taking blood thinners.
Try Relieving Pain Without Medication
There are many home remedies for pain relief you may want to try, including:
Cold and heat therapy. This method can temporarily relieve certain types of pain. Applying ice or a cold pack to the painful area on your body can help reduce pain and inflammation. You also can try applying a hot compress or heating pad, which is particularly helpful for pain caused by injured muscles. You can alternate between cold and warm throughout the day to find what provides you with the most relief.
Mind-body techniques. Meditation, mindfulness and breathing exercises can help you manage stress and relax your body to help reduce pain. Research shows that mindful meditation reduces stress and pain responses in the body.
Ginger tea. The next time you feel pain coming on, reach for a mug of ginger tea. Anti-inflammatory ginger works similarly to NSAIDs in the body, helping reduce pain-causing chemicals in the body the way NSAIDs do. Ginger has been proven effective at reducing menstrual cramps, headaches and joint pain.
Yoga. Yoga reduces both stress and pain, which often go hand in hand. Yoga can help headaches, arthritis pain and pain from injuries. You can do yoga at home or find local classes to learn from an instructor.
If you have pain that persists for more than two weeks, speak with your doctor. They can work with you to determine what is causing your pain and find appropriate treatments.
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