Match the Pain Reliever to the Pain



Life & Beauty Weekly: Health

By Stacey Colino for Life & Beauty Weekly

You may be a pro multitasker, but few can juggle work, family and other responsibilities when in physical pain. And with so many people relying on you, you don’t have time to get sidelined by a headache or other aches and pains. You just need relief. 

The trouble is, with all the over-the-counter pain relievers available, deciding which is best can be, well, a major pain. But it doesn’t have to be. Find your ailment below and discover the most effective treatment so you can get a grip on pain and get on with your life. (If you have health problems or a medical condition, consult your doctor before taking any over-the-counter drugs.)

1. Headache

Whether you have a tension headache or migraine, look for a pain reliever that combines acetaminophen, aspirin and caffeine. “The caffeine improves the analgesic effect of the other ingredients and may help the body absorb them,” says Dr. Batya Grundland, MD, CCFP, family physician at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital and lecturer at the University of Toronto. The aspirin helps block pain-provoking chemicals in the brain called prostaglandins and improves the pain-relieving effects of acetaminophen.

See a doctor if:
You have frequent headaches. Also, consult a physician if you have liver problems, as you may not be able to take acetaminophen.


2. Heartburn

For occasional heartburn, any chewable or liquid antacid will quickly neutralize stomach acid to provide relief, says Grundland.

If you’re prone to diarrhea, choose an antacid with aluminum hydroxide or calcium rather than magnesium. Vice versa if you tend to get constipated.

For persistent heartburn, prescription treatments such as H2-blockers (e.g., ranitidine) or a proton-pump inhibitors (e.g., Losec and Pantoloc) can help provide relief. “Both of these classes of medications work by reducing gastric acid secretion; that is, reducing the amount of acid secreted by your stomach to help digest your food,” says Grundland.

See a doctor if: You get heartburn more than a few times a week or your symptoms worsen.

3. Back pain or strained muscles
“Ibuprofen and naproxen (aka non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs — or NSAIDs) are very helpful medications to help manage back pain and strained muscles,” says Grundland. “They have both analgesic properties (pain relief) as well as anti-inflammatory properties, so they can also target some of the underlying causes for the pain.”

If you have high blood pressure, stomach or kidney problems, however, NSAIDs may not be an option. Acetaminophen is the next best thing. It targets the part of the brain that receives and processes pain messages from the injured area.  

Whichever pill you take, you can also rub on a topical pain-relieving gel containing menthol or salicylate, says Grundland. “The evidence behind the use of menthol or salicylate for successful pain relief is limited, but it is unlikely to cause harm.”

See a doctor if: Your back pain or muscle strain persists or worsens after a few days.

4. Flu aches and fever
Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are appropriate medications to help with fever or muscle aches, according to Grundland. “Acetaminophen may be a better choice for those at high risk of NSAID side effects, explains Grundland. “Naproxen would not be the first choice NSAID for fever control, but rather a shorter acting NSAID such as ibuprofen.”

NSAIDs are stronger and work longer, but they can upset your stomach. So if you are nauseated or susceptible to stomach problems, you may be better off with acetaminophen.

Either way, avoid aspirin or medications containing aspirin. Ingesting it when you have the flu can trigger a rare but dangerous condition called Reye’s syndrome.

See a doctor if: You experience chest pain, shortness of breath, a cough with excessive mucus or fever that lasts longer than a week.  

5. Menstrual cramps
Surveys suggest the majority of women experience some degree of menstrual pain. In this case, NSAIDs are usually your best bet. They block the production of prostaglandins that cause muscle cramps and spasms in the uterus.

Take ibuprofen or naproxen around the time you expect your period to start or at the first twinge of pain. “They will work most effectively if taken at the early onset of cramps rather than waiting for the pain to peak,” says Grundland. “I would not recommend using them on a preventative basis but rather once cramping begins.”

See a doctor if: NSAIDs don’t offer sufficient relief and you can’t function or your cramps are accompanied by unusually heavy bleeding.

Stacey Colino is a writer in Chevy Chase, MD. She has written for many national magazines, including Newsweek, Real Simple, Self, Woman’s Day, Parents, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour.