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What are pain relievers?

Pain relievers ease discomfort brought on by illness, injury, surgical procedures and chronic conditions. Everyone experiences pain differently. Pain may come on suddenly (acute). Chronic pain can last for months or years.

Pain relievers go by many names:

  • Analgesics.
  • Narcotics.
  • Painkillers.
  • Pain medicine.

What are the types of pain relievers?

There are many different types of pain relievers. The best one for you depends on many factors, including the cause of pain and its severity.

Types of pain relievers include:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC): These medications are available at stores. Any adult can buy them.
  • Prescription: These medications are only available with a prescription from a healthcare provider. Prescription painkillers provide stronger pain relief. They treat severe or chronic pain.

What are the types of over-the-counter pain relievers?

Common OTC pain medications include:

  • Acetaminophen: This drug (Tylenol®) dulls pain receptors in the brain. As a result, you feel less pain.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): NSAIDs lower the production of prostaglandins. These hormone-like chemicals irritate nerve endings, causing inflammation and pain. NSAIDs include aspirin compounds (Excedrin®), ibuprofen (Advil® and Motrin®) and naproxen sodium (Aleve®).
  • Combination: Some pain relievers contain both acetaminophen and aspirin (an NSAID). Certain OTC headache medicines also have caffeine.
  • Topical: You apply this pain medication directly to your skin. It comes as a cream, gel, spray or patch. Topical medicines block pain receptors in the brain. They may contain aspirin, lidocaine, capsaicin pepper or other medication. Some topical treatments make the skin feel warmer or cooler. Common brands are Aspercreme® and Ben-Gay®.

What do over-the-counter pain relievers treat?

OTC pain medications lower fevers and ease pain from a variety of problems, including:

  • Arthritis, bursitis and tendonitis.
  • Back strains and sprains.
  • Broken bones.
  • Burns, including sunburns.
  • Colds, flu and ear infections.
  • Headaches and migraines.
  • Menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea).
  • Muscle pain, including neck pain.
  • Surgeries and minor procedures.
  • Toothaches.

What are the types of prescription pain relievers?

Prescription pain medications provide stronger pain relief than OTC drugs. Types of prescription pain relievers include:

  • Antidepressants: Antidepressants work on chemicals called neurotransmitters in the brain. These drugs work best for chronic pain, including migraines. The largest pain relief comes from tricyclics (Elavil®) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), such as Effexor® and Cymbalta®. Studies show that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac® don’t work as well for pain. SSRIs may make other pain medicines less effective.
  • Anti-seizure medications: Medications for epilepsy interrupt pain messages to the brain. Types include gabapentin (Gabarone®) and pregabalin (Lyrica®). These medicines can ease nerve pain and fibromyalgia.
  • Muscle relaxers: These medications reduce pain by relaxing tight muscles. They also relieve muscle spasms.
  • Opioids: Opioids are lab-made narcotic pain medicines. They change how your brain perceives pain messages. Because they can be addictive, healthcare providers rarely prescribe opioids for chronic pain. You may take opioids for a short time after a surgery or traumatic injury. Codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone and morphine are all opioids.
  • Steroids: Corticosteroids are strong anti-inflammatory drugs. Like NSAIDs, they stop your body from making chemicals that cause irritation and inflammation. Steroids such as Prednisone® treat migraines and severe arthritis and back pain.
  • Topical: Your provider can choose among prescription-strength skin creams, gels, sprays and patches. They can ease muscle pain, arthritis and fibromyalgia. Types include lidocaine (Lidoderm®) skin patches.

What do prescription pain relievers treat?

Prescription pain relievers can alleviate pain brought on by:

  • Cancer.
  • Fibromyalgia.
  • Migraines.
  • Nerve (neuropathic) pain, including diabetic neuropathy.
  • Postoperative pain.
  • Severe arthritis pain.
  • Severe muscle pain, including back pain.
  • Traumatic injuries, including broken bones and burns.