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What are painkillers?

Painkillers are medicines that are used to treat pain. There are a large number of painkillers available and they all come in various different brand names. They can be taken:

  • By mouth as liquids, tablets, or capsules.
  • By injection.
  • Via the back passage (rectum) as suppositories.

Some painkillers are also available as creams, ointments or patches.

Even though there are a large number of painkillers available, there are only three main types (each works in a different way). They are:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). Examples of NSAIDs include ibuprofen, diclofenac and naproxenAspirin is also an NSAID. However, it is mainly prescribed (in low doses) to help to keep the blood from clotting – for example, for people who have had a heart attack in the past.
  • Paracetamol.
  • Weak opioids and strong opioids (sometimes called opiates). Examples of weak opioids include codeine and dihydrocodeine. Although commonly described as ‘weak opioids’, they are extremely effective analgesics often used to treat severe pain; however, they can lead to significant addiction and adverse effects, so should not be underestimated. Examples of strong opioids include morphine, oxycodone, pethidine, and tramadol. Many people who need strong opioids are in hospital.

Different types of painkillers are sometimes combined together into one tablet – for example, paracetamol plus codeine (co-codamol).

In addition to the above, some antidepressants and antiepileptic medicines can be used to treat neuropathic pain. The rest of this leaflet does not discuss these types of medicines. For more information on them see the separate leaflet called Neuropathic Pain.

There are also other alternative methods for pain relief such as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine.

Painkiller Medicine

There are two main types of OTC pain medicines: acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Aspirin, naproxen (Aleve), and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) are examples of OTC NSAIDs. If OTC medicines don’t relieve your pain, your doctor may prescribe something stronger.

Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that treats pain, fever, and swelling. Many people consider this to be one of the best pain relief medications. In fact, out of 892 reviewers, nearly 9 out of 10 said the drug was worth taking.

The most common types of OTC pain medicines are acetaminophen, aspirin, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

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