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Pain Management Health Center

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Chronic Pain: OTC or Prescription Medicine?

When Should You Use an OTC? continued...

Although doctors don’t fully understand how acetaminophen works, it belongs to a class of painkillers called non-opioid analgesics. Also used as a fever reducer, acetaminophen is thought to relieve pain by affecting the part of the brain that receives pain messages and controls body temperature. It often helps relieve pain due to headaches, back pain, sore muscles, and joint pain.

Acetaminophen may also be used in combination with opioid medications. For example, a doctor may prescribe a combination of acetaminophen and a narcotic medication such as codeine or hydrocodone for moderately severe pain.

Don’t Underestimate Side Effects

NSAIDs can cause stomach irritation and bleeding. The chances are higher if you are age 60 or older, have had stomach ulcers, take a blood thinner, have three or more alcoholic drinks a day, or take them for longer than recommended.

If you need an NSAID for longer than 10 days, check with your doctor to see if you need a prescription NSAID or some other alternative. Also ask if you need to take extra steps to help protect your stomach.

Acetaminophen carries a risk of liver damage, which can lead to liver failure, if not taken as directed. Make sure you take no more than recommended on the label. And watch out that you do not mix it with other medications, including prescription painkillers that may also contain acetaminophen. The risk of liver damage increases if you drink alcohol. In fact, the FDA recommends that you do not mix acetaminophen with any alcohol.

The strength of a pain reliever also matters when it comes to side effects. That’s why it’s important to avoid taking more than the recommended amount of an OTC pain reliever.

"If you are feeling better, consider decreasing the frequency or dosage of any pain medicine," says Minzter. "Give your body an occasional vacation from pain drugs.” But remember, when it comes to OTC pain relievers, you shouldn't take them for more than 10 days without talking to your doctor.

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