Solving Your Soreness

Ouch! No one wants to feel pain or soreness. That’s why 8 in 10 of us reach out for over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications when we’re feeling bad from an illness, injury, or headache.1 But not all of these medicines are created equal: Certain ailments benefit from specific treatments.

And all these meds—from acetaminophen to ibuprofen to naproxen—come with different side effects and risks. So buyer beware! “When it comes to medical therapy for pain, less is more,” advises David Harrison, MD, medical director and VP of physician affairs at Teladoc Health. “Just because a medication is sold over the counter doesn’t mean that it’s safe for everyone.”

Before you face the bewildering pharmacy aisle of options, check out our expert advice for using medications correctly and safely.

Fighting inflammation

Ibuprofen—seen in your medicine cabinet as Advil or Motrin—will reduce pain and fever from common viruses. But it’s most known for its anti-inflammatory effects, says Dr. Harrison, and is often used to treat conditions like ankle sprains or arthritis. This medication, along with aspirin and naproxen, is known as an “NSAID,” or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug.

“Ibuprofen and other NSAIDs can provide benefit in decreasing pain due to osteoarthritis, or wear and tear of the joints, and in acute situations of inflammation like treating certain sports and soft-tissue injuries,” Dr. Harrison explains.

Its effects on decreasing soreness and tenderness due to inflammation extend beyond the muscles. Ibuprofen is often used to treat menstrual cramps, toothaches, earaches, and sinusitis.

While ibuprofen is efficient at knocking out pain and inflammation, long-term, you should try to avoid regular use. “Ibuprofen and other NSAIDs can cause stomach upset or even ulcers when used in high doses, and they can also damage the kidneys,” Dr. Harrison warns. “Beware that NSAIDs can increase blood pressure and even cause a small increase in heart attack risk. They can also increase the risk of bleeding after an injury or in people taking blood thinners,” he adds.

Use ibuprofen and other NSAIDs with caution, taking the lowest possible dose. Dr. Harrison also suggests using other pain treatments such as ice, heat, massage, and physical therapy before trying medication. Women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should not take ibuprofen. He also suggests checking with a doctor about taking any new medication if you have medical problems.

Headache help

Acetaminophen, commonly known as Tylenol, is a fever-reducer and pain reliever found in hundreds of products from Excedrin to NyQuil to Theraflu. It’s generally the go-to when people get sick to fight common ailments of illnesses like headache, sore throat, and fever. The analgesic drug works by elevating the pain threshold and working to lower temperature in the heat-regulating center of the brain.2 While every person’s reaction to medication differs, the medicine is generally very good at managing the pain of headaches and arthritis.3

Dr. Harrison says to be careful using Tylenol if you drink alcohol. “Acetaminophen can cause liver damage at high doses and should be used with caution or avoided in people with liver disease,” he says, adding that it simply shouldn’t be used in combination with alcohol.

Aside from liver concerns, it’s generally considered safer for moderate use than NSAIDs like Advil or Aleve. Still, many physicians recommend alternating Tylenol and Advil to manage short-term pain needs.

Pediatricians often suggest this “switching” technique to minimize side effects of OTC drugs for children. Kids over six months of age should be dosed according to weight. If you’re uncertain about the amount to give, or which medicine would be best for your child, reach out to a physician.

The most common side effects of acetaminophen are rash, nausea, and headache.2 More serious problems are allergic reactions, kidney damage, liver damage, and anemia.

Proceeding with caution

If this all sounds a little scary, it is! Just because a medicine is available without a prescription does not mean it can be taken carelessly. A study showed that internal medicine specialists focusing on the digestive tract see about two patients a week—or 90 a year—who have major stomach or intestinal damage due to over-the-counter pain medicines.4 Never take more than what’s recommended.

It’s important to remember that each of us process medications differently. So while one drug may help someone with a particular ailment, it may bring someone else discomfort. If you’re in pain, talk to a physician about your options for preventing and managing that pain by methods other than medicating.

If your health history or current ailment is leaving you uncertain about which OTC pain reliever is right for you, reach out to one of our U.S. board-certified Teladoc Health doctors. Our national network of physicians and pediatricians are available on demand, 24/7, to help you resolve routine medical issues from anywhere, at any time. Download our app or sign in now to request a visit with one of our licensed doctors to help manage your pain.



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