The Best Non-Prescription Pain Relievers

Q:             Which non-prescription pain medicine is the best to use?

There are 4 pain medicines you can buy without a prescription: Tylenol®, Aleve® Advil®, and Motrin-IB®. Which would be best for you to use depends on what type of pain you need it for and whether you have certain kinds of medical conditions.

Tylenol® is oldest of the pain medicines available over-the-counter (OTC). Also known by its generic name acetaminophen, Tylenol® is very safe to use as long you avoid taking too much of it. Taking more than 8 Extra-Strength tablets of 500mg acetaminophen or 12 tablets of regular strength or 325mg Tylenol® in one day can permanently damage your liver, especially if you do it frequently.

The other 3 pain medicines you can buy without a prescription are closely related to each other and all work in the same way. The active ingredient in Aleve® is naproxen and the active ingredient in both Advil and Motrin-IB is ibuprofen. Ibuprofen and naproxen are called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs for short. NSAIDs are powerful painkillers that are quite effective for certain types of pain associated with inflammation: muscle aches, sprains or strains, tension headache, and dental pain.

Pain medicines with anti-inflammatory action like ibuprofen or naproxen are much better than Tylenol® or acetaminophen for menstrual cramps and especially to prevent swelling and pain after a tooth extraction, but it comes with a price. NSAIDs can cause stomach pain and bleeding, interfere with how your kidneys work, or trigger heart failure from retaining excess water.

I recommend naproxen (Aleve®) over ibuprofen because it lasts longer. Naproxen lasts 8-10 hours while ibuprofen wears off in 6 hours. Years ago I tore a ligament in my right wrist while chopping wood in weather 20 degrees below zero. Some people should NOT be allowed to swing an axe, and I’m one of them! Even taking the most potent prescription strength of ibuprofen three times a day I’d wake up in excruciating pain night after night at exactly 3:25 am. After switching to the OTC strength of naproxen I slept blissfully through the night.

Always take an NSAID with a full glass of water or right after a meal to reduce your risk of stomach problems like burning, cramps, heartburn or bleeding ulcers. The extra water or food will dilute the medicine as it dissolves in your stomach, decreasing your chances of developing pain or bleeding.

When taking naproxen or ibuprofen it’s extremely important to drink plenty of water and avoid them if you are having vomiting or diarrhea. NSAIDs can cause problems with your kidneys, especially if you become dehydrated.

If you have a certain type of heart condition called congestive heart failure (CHF), you should avoid NSAIDs completely. Just ONE DOSE of ibuprofen or naproxen can trigger a deadly build up of fluid in your lungs.

If you have stomach or kidney problems, Tylenol® will be the safest medicine for you to treat mild to moderate pain… unless you take too much of it.

Unfortunately, taking more acetaminophen than you should is MUCH easier than you’d think. Following the dosing recommendations on your bottle of Tylenol® is not enough to prevent problems because acetaminophen is already in many commonly prescribed prescription pain medicines like Vicodin® and Percocet®.

You can also end up taking too much NSAID medicine without realizing it. In addition to OTC formulations, higher strengths of ibuprofen and naproxen along with several other prescription-only NSAIDs are widely prescribed as anti-inflammatory medicines. Taking an OTC and prescription NSAID at the same time increases your chances of having side effects like stomach pain, kidney problems or bleeding ulcers.

 

To choose the best OTC pain medicine for you, follow these guidelines:

  1. For muscle aches, sprains and strains, dental pain or menstrual cramps taking an NSAID like ibuprofen or naproxen will usually work much better for you than Tylenol® or acetaminophen. I recommend naproxen because it lasts 8-10 hours, but either naproxen or ibuprofen should help.
  1. If you have a stomach ulcer, kidney problems, congestive heart failure (CHF), or are taking a blood thinner, you should stick with Tylenol® or acetaminophen regardless of the type of pain you have, because it’s is a safer choice.

 

  1. Don’t double up on painkillers. Although it’s safe to take an NSAID anti-inflammatory medicine at the same time as Tylenol®, you should NEVER take more than one NSAID at a time or more than one medicine with acetaminophen in it at a time. Ask your pharmacist if you’re not sure if your prescription pain medicine has either acetaminophen or an NSAID in it.

 

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