The Difference in Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers

Taking medication with water at home

Consider these things when selecting your over-the-counter pain relievers.

Standing in the pain reliever aisle of your local pharmacy, you’ll be confronted by many choices. They all claim to be effective at reducing pain, so which one is better for you to use? In this article, we’ll break down the major differences between non-prescription pain relievers and give you some information about which one to use to alleviate certain types of pain.

Two Major Drug Types

Manufacturers use many brand names to market their pain relief products, including Tylenol, Advil, Aleve, and Motrin. But the choice in over-the-counter pain relievers basically comes down to just two names you may be less familiar with – acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). 

First, let’s introduce you to a few generic names:

  • Acetaminophen is the generic name for Tylenol.
  • Ibuprofen is the generic name for Motrin and Advil.
  • Naproxen sodium is the generic name for Aleve.

Ibuprofen and naproxen sodium are both NSAIDs. These drugs block production of certain enzymes that are part of the inflammation process in your body. Taking an NSAID helps reduce swelling from an injury like a sprained ankle, and that in turn eases pain. People who suffer from ongoing joint inflammation like rheumatoid arthritis may also take an NSAID to feel better.

Acetaminophen works by increasing the body’s threshold for pain, helping to reduce the perception of pain. It’s not an anti-inflammatory, so it won’t reduce swelling from a sprain or arthritis. 

Key difference: Ibuprofen and naproxen sodium help reduce inflammation that causes pain, while acetaminophen only helps relieve pain itself. 

Ibuprofen vs. Naproxen

Ibuprofen and naproxen sodium work similarly, so how are they different? Ibuprofen is short-acting – it works quickly, and its effect only lasts a few hours.  Naproxen sodium takes more time to have an effect, but it also lasts longer. Because of that, naproxen sodium is often favored for pain caused by chronic conditions.   

Drawbacks and Cautions

One drawback to ibuprofen and other NSAIDs is that the enzymes they block to reduce inflammation are the same ones that help protect the stomach lining. That means taking this type of pain reliever can increase the chances of an upset stomach and other gastrointestinal problems. If you take an NSAID and start having stomach issues , you should consider switching to a different type of pain reliever like acetaminophen.

While acetaminophen is easier on the stomach, a downside is that higher doses of it can cause serious liver damage. Be sure to stay within the recommended dosage. Acetaminophen is sometimes present in other products, such as NyQuil, so check the labels of other medicines you are taking to make sure you are not taking too much acetaminophen at once. 

Which One is Best?

The choice about whether to take acetaminophen or an NSAID often comes down to what is causing your pain, and what other medical issues you have.

  • Colds, headaches, fever: You can take either ibuprofen or acetaminophen for these. If you are prone to stomach problems, go with acetaminophen.
  • Muscle aches or strains: Ibuprofen should be your first choice for this, unless you have stomach issues. You should also be careful about taking ibuprofen or other NSAIDs if you have some other conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and kidney or liver problems. Read the label and check with your doctor first.

Taking too much of either acetaminophen or ibuprofen can cause several medical problems, as can taking them for long periods of time. It’s important to follow the directions on the package carefully and talk with your doctor if you need long-term pain relief.