Medically reviewed by L. Anderson, PharmD Last updated on Feb 13, 2018.
What is Pain?
Pain is a signal from our body that something is not right. It can be due to a physical injury, some kind of disease, or emotional upset. Most types of physical pain can be treated with pain relievers.
Analgesics such as acetaminophen or paracetamol are used to treat mild or moderate pain, and can also be used to reduce temperature in fevers. Narcotic analgesics such as codeine can be used alone or in combination with other analgesics for stronger pain, such as dental pain, menstrual pain or migraines. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (including aspirin) are used to reduce pain associated with inflammation, such as sports injuries, and can also be used to relieve fever. Acetaminophen, the NSAIDs ibuprofen or naproxen, and aspirin are all available over-the-counter (OTC).
Common Pain Conditions
There are many acute and chronic pain conditions, including:
- Back and Leg Pain
- Neck, Shoulder and Arm Pain
- "Whiplash" Injuries
- Motor Vehicle, Work-Related and Sports Injuries
- Failed Back Surgery and Other Post Surgical Pain Syndromes
- Pain Due to Arthritis
- Primary and Metastatic Cancer Pain (cancer that has spread to distant areas of the body)
- Medication Side Effect Management
Pain Linked to Other Conditions
- Vascular Pain
- Raynaud's Disease
- Psychogenic Pain
- Trigeminal Neuralgia
- Spinal Cord Injury
- Pelvic Pain
- Pediatric Pain
What Are Over-the-Counter (OTC) Pain Medications?
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- Naproxen (Aleve)
- Aspirin (Bayer)
Over-the-counter medications, which you can buy without a prescription, are good for many types of pain. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is good for relieving pain and fever. It is less irritating to the stomach than other over-the-counter pain medications and is safer for children. It can, however, be toxic to the liver if you take more than the recommended dose. Be sure to look at the total amount of acetaminophen in all of the medications you take and do not exceed 4 grams (4,000 mg) of acetaminophen per day in adults. Also avoid excess alcohol consumption if you take acetaminophen to lower further risk of liver toxicity.
Aspirin, naproxen (Aleve), and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) are examples of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These reduce inflammation caused by injury, arthritis, or fever. NSAIDs also relieve pain associated with menstruation. Take these medications in regular dosing intervals as directed by the manufacturer on the package. If you have high blood pressure, kidney disease, or a history of gastrointestinal bleeding, you should consult your health care provider before using any over-the-counter NSAID.
Prescription medications may be needed for more severe types of pain. There are specific uses and risks of prescription narcotic and non-narcotic medications. Because these drugs can be linked with side effects like drowsiness, constipation, slowed breathing and addiction, it is best to try non-narcotic pain relievers for mild, temporary, pain.
There are alternate methods to help reduce pain that may be helpful instead of, or in addition to, pain medications. These include:
- heat for sore or overworked muscles
- ice applied to recent injuries (such as a sprained ankle)
- resting the affected body part
- biofeedback or relaxation techniques.
Consult your doctor if pain lasts longer than a few days, if over-the-counter pain medications are not helping to reduce the pain, or if other symptoms arise. A consultation with a pain clinic or other specialist may be helpful for control of long-term pain.
Can You Give Aspirin to Children?
DO NOT give aspirin to children. Reye's syndrome is associated with the use of aspirin to treat children with viral infections, such as chicken pox of the flu. This syndrome can cause brain and liver damage. Reye syndrome is most often seen in children ages 4 to 12.
- Pain Management 101 - What are your treatment options?
- Understanding Opioid (Narcotic) Pain Medications
Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.