The Right Medication for Your Pain

Figuring out what pain medicine to buy can be overwhelming. These tips can help you avoid that headache.

Over-the-counter pain relievers - also called analgesics - are available as four main products.

  • Aspirin is in Bayer and Bufferin.
  • Acetaminophen is in Tylenol and Excedrin.
  • Ibuprofen is in Advil and Motrin.
  • Naproxen is the main ingredient in Aleve.

Ingredients Make a Difference

"These four pain relievers treat similar symptoms and provide comparable relief for mild to moderate pain," says Rosemarie Maraj, M.D., internist at MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital.

She explains that each product is somewhat better for relieving certain ailments:

  • Aspirin may help prevent or treat heart disease and stroke - but talk to your doctor before taking a daily aspirin.
  • Ibuprofen and naproxen are more effective than aspirin for backaches, toothaches and pain from minor arthritis.
  • The American Geriatrics Society recommends acetaminophen for musculoskeletal pain such as osteoarthritis pain.

Dr. Maraj adds that different pain relievers are less likely to cause particular side effects:

  • Aspirin is not recommended if you have ulcers, asthma, uncontrolled high blood pressure or liver, kidney and bleeding disorders.
  • Aspirin and ibuprofen are not recommended for women who are pregnant.
  • Acetaminophen is the gentlest on the stomach, with ibuprofen and naproxen sodium being more mild than aspirin. But even these may cause ulcers or stomach bleeding in some people.

In excess, any pain reliever can cause serious side effects, Dr. Maraj stresses. For example, taking too much ibuprofen or naproxen increases the risk for ulcers. Combining these drugs with aspirin adds to the risk for digestive tract bleeding, and heavy use of acetaminophen can lead to liver damage. The risk is especially high with products that contain a mix of painkilling ingredients, such as acetaminophen along with aspirin.

"When deciding which over-the-counter pain reliever to use, consider all the medicines, vitamins and herbal supplements you're taking," advises Dr. Maraj. "Certain medications can impact the effectiveness of other products and combining others can result in negative, even life-threatening, side effects." Your doctor and pharmacist, as well as a product's packaging labels, can help you avoid dangerous interactions.

Is One Better Than Another?

You're familiar with brand-name pain relievers because of commercials and print ads. But brand-name drugs usually aren't better than lower-cost, generic versions. Most store-name brands use the same ingredients as the brand names and work just as well.

Some pain relievers claim to last longer. Others claim they can help you get to sleep. These extras can be worth the cost, but only if you need them. If you have a question, ask your doctor.

Because pain relievers affect pain differently, what works for one person may not work for another. It may take a few tries before you find the one that works most effectively for you.

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