What’s the Best Pain Reliever You Can Buy OTC?

What’s the Best Pain Reliever You Can Buy OTC?

by Sue Jones
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A few other cautions about NSAIDs: They shouldn’t be mixed with alcohol, and it’s best to check in with your doctor before taking them if you’re pregnant, have allergies, or are taking other medications.

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What is acetaminophen?

Similar to NSAIDs, acetaminophen (Tylenol) is a star at relieving headaches, easing minor aches and pains, and reducing fever, but it falls short in the inflammation department. Acetaminophen is not an anti-inflammatory agent, so it won’t reduce symptoms caused by inflammation like swelling.3 It also works a bit differently than NSAIDs. It seems to work on the parts of the brain that receive pain messages and controls body temperature, per the American Academy of Family Physicians.

It’s also easier on the stomach and generally has fewer side effects than NSAIDs. That’s why it’s recommended for long-term use, for young children, and for people who are pregnant. But it’s important that you take the proper dose to avoid complications. At very high doses, which can mean one super high dose or a too-high dose over several days, acetaminophen can cause acute liver failure, according to the Mayo Clinic.

You’ll also need to avoid happy hour while taking acetaminophen since it can lead to liver toxicity, says Dr. Van Groningen.

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What are combination pain relievers?

There are a few OTC pain relievers that combine aspirin and/or acetaminophen with caffeine. The reason? Caffeine may help these pain relievers work better. In a 2014 study published in the Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews, researchers found that pain relievers containing 100 mg or more of caffeine provided more pain relief than pain killers alone.5

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What are topical pain relievers?

Whether you’re sore from an intense workout or you sprained your ankle during a run, a topical pain reliever can help. They come in the form of creams, patches, gels, and sprays, and they are absorbed into the skin to reduce pain and inflammation in the area you apply them.

Topical pain relievers can include ingredients such as methyl salicylate and menthol (which both give a cooling sensation), NSAIDs (to relieve pain), and capsaicin (a compound of chili peppers that produces a warming sensation), according to the Cleveland Clinic. Capsaicin helps reduce pain by essentially desensitizing your nerves.6

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What about prescription pain relievers?

If you’re dealing with chronic or severe pain after an accident or injury, OTC pain killers may not cut it. In these situations, your doctor may provide a prescription pain reliever. Things like opioids, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, muscle relaxers, and corticosteroids all fall into this category, according to the Cleveland Clinic. One note of caution about prescription pain relievers is that with stronger medications comes more risks, including the potential for substance abuse. For this reason, your doctor will likely only prescribe a short course of these medications.

Whether you are taking prescription or OTC drugs, it’s a good idea to keep a list of all the medications, vitamins, and supplements you take so your doctor and pharmacist can be aware of any harmful interactions that could occur between medications.

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What is the best pain reliever for each pain type?

Knowing about all of the OTC pain relievers out there is one thing, but understanding when to use each type of medication is another. Whether you’re dealing with a splitting headache or unbearable period cramps, here’s how to know which is the best pain reliever for your situation. And remember, if you aren’t sure about what type of medication you need, it’s always best to check in with your doctor first.

The problem: Aches and pains in your muscles and joints

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