Feeling an ache or a pain may have you reaching for the nearest over-the-counter pain medication, but it is important to know the basics when it comes to medicating, say doctors at Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. John Rogers, professor of family and community medicine at BCM, said the three most common over-the-counter pain relievers are acetaminophen, ibuprofen and naproxen.

Read direction labels

news-100713-otc-pain-relief (320x240)
Feeling an ache or pain? Our expert says stick to the recommended dosage and read direction labels closely with over-the-counter pain relievers.

“The best advice is to read the direction labels and warnings and follow those rules,” said Rogers. “If you take too little or too much, it could mean they will be ineffective or could actually do more harm than good.”

Acetaminophen is a pain reliever and also reduces fever, but it does not reduce inflammation. It works by stopping the pain messages from reaching the brain.

Ibuprofen and naproxen are both nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and can also be used for pain and fever reduction. They are the better option when dealing with inflammation caused by ailments such as tendonitis. They work by reducing the production of prostaglandins, hormone-like substances that cause pain.

“Naproxen tends to last longer but takes longer to start working, while ibuprofen works faster but doesn’t last as long. That is why taking the correct dosage at the right times is important to the effectiveness of each medication,” said Rogers. “Another reason to stick to dosage directions is that these medications build up in your system when taken by the clock. They become more effective. If you stop taking them and wait for the pain to return, it won’t work as well.”

Stick to recommended doses

Dosage is also important because there are side effects to these medications.  Too much acetaminophen  for extended periods of time can damage the liver. Rogers recommends that those with known liver problems, including those brought on by alcohol consumption or high cholesterol medication, talk to their doctor before taking this pain reliever. Ibuprofen and naproxen might be easy on the liver, but they both can damage the stomach lining or digestive tract if not taken properly.

“For over-the-counter dosage amounts these side effects are not common, but when you are taking prescription strength (higher dosages than over-the-counter doses) you are more likely to have problems if you don’t follow the directions and take too much,” Rogers said. 

Aspirin is another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug sold as a pain reliever that is also effective as a preventative to heart attacks.