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Does your back ache? Do you have a headache, toothache or sprained ankle? What medication should you choose for pain relief? In most cases these types of pain are common and can be treated with over the counter pain medications which make up a 2 billion dollar a year industry. The few basic medications available to treat your pain must be chosen wisely and you must be aware of the possible side effects of these drugs so that they don’t cause more harm than good.

The potential for harm rises with increasing doses of the medication and in taking it for long periods of time. The elderly and those with chronic medical conditions face a greater chance of experiencing troublesome side effects.

In spite of the pharmacy shelves being filled with a mind boggling combination of available pain relieving drugs, they are really all made up of any one of the following types of drug:

ACETAMINOPHEN (Tylenol)

This is probably the safest of the drugs when taken at the recommended doses. It is classified as an analgesic (pain reliever) as well as a fever reducer. It can be used by all ages, except infants  with fever under 3 months of age who should see their doctor for evaluation and treatment. It can have a toxic effect is on the liver and should be used very cautiously, if at all, by those with liver disease or those who drink more than 3 alcoholic beverages a day. A big advantage of acetaminophen over the others is its tendency not to irritate or harm the stomach. It can be taken if one is also taking a blood thinning medication. Follow the dosing directions carefully.

IBUPROFEN (Advil, Motrin IB)

This is called an anti-inflammatory analgesic because it acts not only on most any type of pain but also on inflammation. Many people use this medication for relief of soft tissue aches and pains associated with vigorous exercise or hard physical labor. Like acetaminophen it is very effective as a fever reducer for young and old. Do not use in infants under 6 months of age without consulting your doctor. Unlike acetaminophen, it does not harm the liver in recommended doses, but, it can be very irritating to the stomach possibly leading to bleeding and/or stomach ulcers. Long term high dose usage has been linked to increase risk of heart and kidney disease.  It should not be taken while taking a blood thinning drug.

NAPROXEN SODIUM (Aleve)

This is also an anti-inflammatory drug taken for the same indications as ibuprofen. It can be taken less frequently than ibuprofen and still achieve the same benefit. It causes similar side effects to ibuprofen with perhaps less likelihood of stomach and kidney problems.

ASPIRIN (Bayer, Excedrin)

This time honored drug is also an anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and fever reducer. Under the care of a physician, it is now being used in a low dose to help prevent heart disease. It’s cheap and plentiful, but has more potential side effects compared to the others. It is more frequently associated with stomach irritation and bleeding. It is not recommended in children less than 16 years of age. Because of the potential side effects, I personally would not take aspirin to treat routine pain unless there was no other choice.

TOPICAL (Voltaren Gel)

These products can be applied directly to the skin over painful joints such as the knee, wrist, and  elbow. Since very little of the medication gets into the blood stream when it is applied to the skin, there is a lower risk of side effects.

The bottom line is that if you have mild pain for whatever reason, any of the above drugs could be helpful. Results vary for each individual. Pay close attention to the various side effects which I have listed and which can be found on the medication label. Be sure to see your doctor if you get no pain relief from these commonly used medications or if your pain lasts more than a few days.  

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