When choosing an over-the-counter pain reliever, it doesn’t hurt to do your research.


When choosing an over-the-counter pain reliever, it doesn't hurt to do your research.



Before reaching into the medicine cabinet the next time you have a minor ache, pain or fever, think twice. Not all pain relievers work the same way and depending on your symptoms, there are a few things you should know about how different over-the-counter pain relievers work. Here are some general guidelines to consider about the most common over-the-counter, or commonly known as OTC painkillers, and their intended uses.

OTC pain relievers can be put in one of two general categories: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (known as NSAIDs), and acetaminophen.


The most common OTC anti-inflammatory drugs are aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve).  Each of these pain relievers work in reducing inflammation at the source of the pain as well as reducing fever. NSAIDs are best used for muscle aches, arthritis, and back pain. Anti-inflammatories can be extremely effective in treating aches and pains because they give your body a rest from inflammation and a chance to heal. Ibuprofen is best for treating muscle soreness and sprain, while naproxen is best for back pain.


For nerve-related pain, especially toothaches, and some forms of migraines and fevers, acetaminophen can be a good choice of treatment. For children and nursing mothers this is a good option because there are virtually no side effects, unlike NSAIDs, which have been known to upset the stomach. Acetaminophen differs from an anti-inflammatory in that it doesn’t directly reduce inflammation, but blocks nerve receptors that transmit pain to the brain. Unlike NSAIDs, the risk of overdose with acetaminophen is much higher and can cause liver damage if too much is taken for too long. As with any medication, consult the FDA guidelines before use. In general, the rule is to aim for the smallest effective dose.

There are a variety of pain relievers for the many different pains we experience. Knowing the difference between OTC pain relievers can help treat the problem more effectively and get you pain-free sooner.