When it comes to finding relief, you may find yourself asking a key question: Just how safe is my pain medication? The answers may surprise you.

About Pain Medication

There are many kinds of pain medication, which only makes sense, as there are many kinds of pain. Some medicines are available at your local drugstore, but others require a prescription from your doctor. Some pain medications help ease your pain by reducing inflammation. Others focus on faulty messages from damaged nerves. Different types of pain require different treatments. For the sake of our discussion here, we will break the various types of pain relievers on the market today into two categories: those available over the counter and those that require a prescription from your doctor.

OTC pain relievers

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Over-the-counter pain relievers are among the most common pain meds available. In addition to relieving pain, these OTC medications also help reduce fevers. Some of them also reduce inflammation. Acetaminophen, sold under the brand name Tylenol, can ease pain and reduce fevers.

Asprin, ibuprofen (sold as Advil) and naproxen (known as Aleve) are over-the-counter medications that are called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). This means they don’t just make the pain more tolerable, and they also reduce inflammation. This can be particularly useful in pain that comes from injuries or arthritis.

Prescription pain drugs

The vast majority of medications used to treat pain require a prescription from a doctor. Prescription pain drugs are used when over-the-counter pain relievers aren’t potent enough to effectively manage your pain. Many NSAIDs are available by prescription only. This includes higher doses of OTC drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen as well as other medications that only available with a prescription, such as Celebrex. Narcotic pain medication is used for severe pain. This class of medications includes opioids like morphine and hydrocodone compounds, such as Vicodin. Anti-convulsants and tricyclic antidepressants are also used to manage chronic pain.

Risks of common pain meds

All medications come with side-effects. No medicine is free from risks, and common pain meds are no different. Acetaminophen can cause serious damage to the liver.  Therefore, it should not be used in patients with chronic liver problems. NSAIDs can cause the stomach to bleed. This is most common with long-term use. But in some cases, stomach bleeding has occurred even with only short-term use. Long-term NSAID use can also cause kidney damage.

Narcotic pain medications come with their own set of problems. Opioids come with side-effects that include nausea, constipation, dizziness, and can impair our ability to drive safely. In addition to the side effects of these drugs, there is also the risk of abuse and addiction. The U.S. is in the midst of an opioid crisis, which has resulted in more restrictive laws regarding the use of these drugs to treat pain.

Alternative Pain Relief

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When it comes to living well despite being in pain, medications aren’t the only option out there. There are many other ways to manage pain besides common pain meds. These alternative treatments stand-alone or in addition to drug therapy to decrease pain levels.

Massage

A good old-fashioned massage can be a particularly useful tool for relieving pain when the root cause links to muscle spasms or stiffness. Massage is highly effective when it comes to getting muscles to relax and release. Massage is also helpful when it comes to managing chronic pain, such as that experienced in fibromyalgia and arthritis. Studies have found that massage therapy can increase serotonin (which reduces pain naturally), increase deep sleep, increase range of motion, lower anxiety and improve mood.

Acupuncture

This well-known form of Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of the oldest healing arts in existence. In the practice of acupuncture, needles are used to stimulate specific points on the body to relieve pain. The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that “acupuncture appears to be a reasonable option for people with chronic pain to consider” because studies have shown it to ease chronic pain such as back, neck pain, and osteoarthritis. Research has also found that acupuncture may prevent migraine attacks as well as reduce the incidence and severity of tension headaches.

Hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy from soaking and/or bathing is an age-old remedy used for pain management for centuries. Research has found that soaking in a hot bath makes the joints looser and reduces pain. Soaking in hot water has multiple benefits. The heat provides a therapeutic benefit all on its own, easing tension and relaxing muscles. However, simply using a heating pad isn’t as effective. This is because soaking/bathing also takes advantage of the buoyancy provided by water. Water decreases the effects of gravity on the body and can help relieve compression of the joints, especially the spine.

Herbal remedies

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Natural treatments to manage pain have become increasingly popular in recent years. However, it is important to exercise caution when experimenting with herbal remedies and always discuss using them with your doctor first. Some of the most common herbal remedies used to treat chronic pain are capsaicin, ginger, feverfew, turmeric, and devil’s claw. The American Pain Foundation also lists kava kava, St. John’s wort, and valerian root for pain management.

Cannabis

In many states, medical marijuana laws have made cannabis a legal treatment option for those who live with chronic pain. A review of several studies found that in “six out of six general chronic pain studies and five out of five neuropathic pain studies found a significant improvement” in pain levels after the use of cannabis. A study conducted by the University of Michigan found that medicinal marijuana decreased side effects from other medications, improved quality of life, and reduced use of opioids (on average) by 64 percent.

How Should I Treat My Pain?

Treating pain effectively requires an individual treatment plan tailored to you. What works for one type of pain will not work for another. And likewise, what works for one person may not work for another. As with any medication, all common pain meds come with risks and side effects. Your doctor is the best person to weigh the benefits against the risks and decide what is right for your individual situation.

If you prefer to go the natural route, many alternative therapies can help get your pain under control. Often, it takes a combination of alternative therapies and medications to successfully manage pain. Many people with chronic pain refer to a “toolbox” of strategies for controlling their pain levels that include a wide range of the various treatments discussed here. The more tools in your toolbox, the better.

Featured image CC by 2.0, by Victor, via Flickr

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