Ouch! If you're saying that more these days as various aches and pains strike from your head to your feet, keep on reading. For many people, the answer to treating common aches and pains is an over-the-counter painkiller. If you make that choice, be sure you choose the right one. Some painkillers work better than others for specific pains, and the best choice for your headache may not be the best choice for a backache.
The four most common over-the-counter analgesics are aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen (Aleve). Let's take a look at the best uses for each:
Aspirin. Aspirin's active ingredient has been used for more than 2,000 years, and is the original medicine for all aches and pains. Even in the 21st century, aspirin is often referred to as a "wonder drug" since modern medicine has found it has uses other than just easing pain. In its role as a painkiller, Aspirin is an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) that reduces swelling and suppresses inflammation, which makes it a good choice for muscle and joint pain as well as the pain from toothaches. In other areas, aspirin also thins blood, and is taken daily by millions to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Numerous studies have shown that it reduces the risk of many types of cancer, all probably a result of its anti-inflammatory properties.
CAUTION: Aspirin can cause stomach irritation and bleeding, and it should be avoided by anyone who has ulcers, bleeding disorders, or kidney or liver problems.
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Ibuprofen. Like aspirin, ibuprofen is also an NSAID, which means it's an anti-inflammatory. It was originally created to treat the pain of arthritis, and it's pain-relieving abilities are similar to aspirin. It's recommended to tamp down fever as well as the head and body aches of the common cold symptoms, and experts advice using it to treat tension headaches and migraine. Even though it can also irritate the stomach and should be avoided by the same people who shun aspirin, it generally has fewer side effects than aspirin.
Naproxen. Naproxen is another type of NSAID that many experts recommend for the muscle aches and pains that accompany a hard workout — or any muscle ache resulting from activity. It's also commonly recommended to ease the pain of gout and common osteoarthritis. Naproxen can also cause stomach irritation.
Studies have found that NSAIDs (excluding aspirin) increase the risk of heart attack and stroke when taken regularly. NSAIDs can also reduce blood flow to the kidneys, so if you choose to take them, be sure to stay well-hydrated
Acetaminophen. Since it's not an NSAID, acetaminophen won't irritate the stomach, but it also won't reduce inflammation. It's usually recommended to treat pain in people who have ulcers and other stomach problems, but it should be avoided by those who drink alcohol, are dehydrated, and have liver or kidney problems. It's generally considered a safe choice for children.
Still, even though painkillers are effective weapons against pain, they are drugs and should be used with a healthy dash of common sense. "People don't think a painkiller they can buy over the counter can hurt them, says Erika Schwartz, M.D., chief medical officer at the Age Management Institute in New York City, "People are popping Tylenol and Advil like candy. Lots of people say they take five a day or more," she tells Newsmax Health.
But an accidental overdose can be deadly. "A Scottish study found that people often take too much acetaminophen without realizing it, and even a little extra can cause liver damage that can kill you," she says. "Tylenol builds up in the system, even when taken at recommended levels." Since many over-the-counter and prescription drugs — especially those formulated to treat multiple symptoms, such as cold medications — contain acetaminophen as an ingredient, it's easy to overdose.
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