Making the Right Choice
We don’t need to visit the doctor every time we want treatment for pain; there’s an abundance of products to choose from in any pharmacy, grocery store or even gas station! Being available without a prescription does not guarantee that a pill is safe, though. In fact, this easy accessibility increases the risk of incorrect usage and over dosage. It is very important to understand how to select the best over-the-counter pain medication for your particular situation, and just as important to know which ones you should avoid!
Aspirin, derived from willow bark, can be considered the original pain medication; Egyptian writings from as far back as 2000 B.C. describe its use for pain and fever control. It is such an effective anti-inflammatory agent that it is the first medication advised by physicians for some medical illness, such as thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid) and phlebitis (inflammation of veins). But it’s potent adverse effects limit its usefulness in non-doctor directed scenarios. For instance, if children take aspirin during certain types of viral illnesses, they can develop a potentially fatal condition called Reye’s Syndrome. Also, aspirin is a potent stomach irritant and a common cause of stomach ulcers. And it is a powerful blood thinner; it is used to prevent heart attacks, strokes and deep vein thrombose (leg blood clots). However, this effect is so long acting that surgeons will defer elective procedure for two weeks should a patient have any aspirin in their system.
Acetaminophen, best known as the popular brand Tylenol, is another commonly used effective medicine for mild to moderate pain relief. Unlike aspirin, which can actually reduce the inflammatory process causing the pain, acetaminophen solely works on the uncomfortable symptoms without altering the root cause. The big advantage it has over other pain medications is that it does not bother the stomach, so it is the number one choice for someone who has any stomach issues, such as ulcers, acid reflux, or even just a “delicate system.” Also, if you need to take something on an empty stomach, this is the best option. There are two huge down-sides to acetaminophen, though. Firstly, it is metabolized through the liver, so ANYONE with a liver issue should stay away from it. This includes someone who is looking for a hangover remedy; the stress of alcohol on the liver from the night before dramatically increases the potential for liver toxicity from this medication. Secondly, acetaminophen is a “hidden” ingredient in many other over-the-counter AND prescription drugs, so you can exceed the safe dosage of this substance without even knowing it when you take the advised over-the -counter dosage.
Ibuprofen, marketed under the brand names “Advil” and “Motrin”, is another common and effective pain reliever. Like aspirin, it reduces discomfort and any underlying/causative inflammation and so is termed an NSAID (nonsteroid anti-inflammatory drug). Its beneficial effects persist in the body longer than aspirin and it does not share the risk of Reye’s syndrome, so is preferred over aspirin in many scenarios. But like aspirin, it can be very irritating to the stomach and so should be avoided by anyone with gastritis, ulcers, or acid reflux. Additionally, regular use of ibuprofen can cause kidney damage and blood pressure elevation; this drug should not be taken by anyone with these health conditions without physician direction.
Naproxen, marketed under the brand name Aleve, is another NSAID very similar to ibuprofen in it’s effects and side effects. Its effect in the body lasts even longer than ibuprofen, which may be useful in some situations, but the side effects of stomach upset, kidney irritation and increased blood pressure limit its safety for long term use.
Making the choice of the selecting the right pain reliever even more difficult for you is the fact that some popular brands have varying or mixed ingredients. Midol, a successful menstrual pain reliever, has one version that contains acetaminophen, another that contains Naproxen, and a third that has ibuprofen as its main component! Popular “cold” remedies, such as Dayquil, Tylenol Cold and Sinus, Advil Cold and Sinus, have significant amount of pain relievers in addition to the active ingredients that fight congestion. And Excedrin pills typically contain both acetaminophen and aspirin.
Doctors take care selecting the right prescription medicine for their patients, consumers’ needs to be just as diligent choosing the right over the counter pain medication for themselves. Read the ingredients so you know exactly which chemical you are getting. Anyone with liver problems or recent heavy alcohol use should steer clear of acetaminophen. Ibuprofen and naproxen, on the other hand, should be avoided by folks with stomach, kidney or blood pressure problems. And aspirin use should be reserved for adults; generally, it’s most important role is in clot prevention, rather than pain relief. Exercise great care regarding what you put in your body; it is magnificent machine!