Updated: May 19
Many people out there pop over the counter pain medications on a regular basis for their pain, headaches, and arthritis. It’s easy, it seems to help most of the time, and for what seems like forever, it has been made out to be a safe way to manage pain and symptoms.
However, studies in recent years have shown worrisome side-effects of taking over the counter (OTC) pain medications Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and the NSAIDS Ibuprofen and Naproxen (Motrin, Advil, Aleve). These side-effects are much more likely if you are taking them on a long-term basis to manage chronic pain, headaches, or arthritis. Long-term use of both Acetaminophen and NSAIDS have been recently linked to damage to the heart, GI tract, kidneys, and liver. And chronic use of NSAIDS (Motrin, Advil, Aleve) has been linked to higher risk of heart attack, stroke, GI ulcers, and uncontrolled high blood pressure. If you have been using these medications on a long-term basis, you should consult with your Primary Care Doctor.
Most recent recommendations state that OTC pain medications should be used only for acute flare-ups and only for a few days at a time, with a maximum of 1-2 weeks for more severe, persistent flare-ups.
With more and more research coming out showing the negative effects of long-term OTC pain medication use, it is important that you find alternative methods for managing your pain, headaches, or arthritis.
What are some safe alternatives to OTC Pain medications?
Physical Therapy (PT) is a non-invasive, holistic way to manage joint and muscle pain, neck and back pain, headaches, and arthritis. A good PT program will include specific stretching exercises, targeted strengthening exercises, and plenty of hands-on manual therapy techniques. Manual techniques proven to reduce or eliminate pain include joint mobilization, myofascial release, and spinal manipulation, amongst others. Depending on your specific case, your PT plan may also include pain-reducing modalities such as electrical stimulation, therapeutic ultrasound, moist heat, ice, or joint taping.
Swimming and Pool Exercise Swimming, walking, or jogging in a pool may help loosen up tight muscles and joints, and the buoyancy provided by the water can help unload a sore spine. Pool exercise makes a good supplement to other land exercises. As an added benefit, swimming and other aerobic exercises such as walking and cycling help increase endorphins, your brain’s natural painkillers.
Meditation and clearing your mind may help in cases of both acute and chronic pain, and may help you to manage your response to pain in your body. Here is a good beginner’s guide for trying meditation for pain at home:
Alternative or complementary medicines such as acupuncture, reflexology, therapeutic massage, and reiki have helped many people with more chronic pain, though these are not one-size-fits-all and the research and evidence in many of these areas is lacking. Where one person swears by acupuncture or reflexology, another person might find little to no benefit. But the one plus of alternative medicine is that there are rarely ever any side-effects you should worry about.
Pain, including that from arthritic changes and headaches can be very frustrating and discouraging. It may leave you feeling like you need to take Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or NSAIDS (Ibuprofen, Advil, Motrin, Aleve) for the rest of your life. But more recent studies have been showing some scary side-effects of long-term use of Tylenol and NSAIDS, including permanent damage to your GI tract and heart, among other issues. Over the counter pain medication is not the only way to manage pain, and is best suited for acute pain and acute flare-ups for 1-2 weeks at the most. In addition, OTC’s will almost never fix the actual source of your pain. There are many other effective ways out there to manage your pain and resume a more active, enjoyable lifestyle. There is substantial evidence and research showing how effective a thorough Physical Therapy treatment plan can be in tackling acute and long-term pain and addressing the actual source of pain and symptoms. Other conservative measures such as swimming, meditation, and alternative medicine may also be helpful, and have little to no side-effects compared to medication. However you choose to tackle your pain, headaches, or arthritis, opt for conservative, non-invasive measures whenever possible, and it is almost always possible.
Dr. Ashley Bertorelli, PT, DPT/Owner and Physical Therapist at The Green Room Physical Therapy
The Green Room Physical Therapy offers Free one-on-one consultations for those unsure of what to do about their pain or loss of mobility. Call (518) 326-3771 to schedule yours.
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