Skip to content

Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

NSAIDs work similarly to aspirin to ease joint pain. Although there are more than a dozen NSAIDs available by prescription, only two are currently available OTC: ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) and naproxen sodium (Aleve, Naprosyn).

Ibuprofen is also available in many generic and store-brand products and, like acetaminophen, may be the active ingredient in products labeled "non-aspirin pain relief."

Side Effects of NSAIDs

The most common side effects of NSAIDs are heartburn, indigestion, abdominal or stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. You can reduce the risk of side effects by taking the medicine with food or milk.

Other possible side effects include:

  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • swelling of the feet
  • stomach ulcers or GI bleeding
  • headache

Taking these drugs with alcohol may increase the risk of GI upset and bleeding. NSAIDs can also increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

When to Avoid NSAIDs

You should not use NSAIDs for pain if you are allergic to aspirin or similar drugs. If you have heart disease, kidney disease, liver cirrhosis, high blood pressure, asthma or a history of stomach problems, or if you take blood thinners or a diuretic, ask your doctor before taking NSAIDs. If you are pregnant or nursing, you should ask your doctor before taking naproxen, although ibuprofen is considered safe except during the third trimester of pregnancy.


The Problem With Combining OTC Pain Relievers

Because many OTC products contain the same ingredients, it's important to know what’s in the medicines you take. Otherwise, if you take more than one product, you may get too much of one ingredient. Overdoses of any of these pain relievers can increase the risk of side effects and even be fatal.

Some products also combine ingredients. For example, aspirin may be combined with acetaminophen in a single tablet for arthritis relief. Some medicines combine OTC pain relievers with other drugs, such as antihistamines, decongestants, or pain medicines to help you sleep.

There may be times when your doctor says it’s OK to use more than one drug -- such as when you have a cold or the flu. But you should not use more than one medication long-term for arthritis. If you need more than one drug, ask your doctor to prescribe them separately so you can get the appropriate dose of each.

Choosing an OTC Pain Reliever

What you need to know to make a safe and effective choice.
View slideshow

Pain Relief Poll

What usually has you reaching for an OTC pain reliever?

View Results