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Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Several options are available for over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medications. But taking the right medication is key to getting the best results. ​Here’s a primer on OTC pain meds.


youth athlete straining to do one more push up

Acetaminophen is commonly used as a painkiller for headaches, menstrual cramps and backaches, other minor aches and pains, and to reduce fever. It is marketed under the brand name Tylenol®. Acetaminophen will not reduce inflammation or swelling caused by an injury. It also usually does not cause stomach upset as can some other OTC pain relievers.

Many other OTC medications, such as those for cold or flu, contain acetaminophen. Read labels carefully so you do not take more of the medicine than recommended.


Ibuprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) commonly used for pain management and to reduce inflammation and swelling caused by injury or from surgery. It also will reduce fever and is widely used for menstrual cramps. Ibuprofen is marketed under brand names such as Advil® and Motrin®.

Ibuprofen may cause stomach upset if not used at the correct dosage. Excessive dosing can lead to long-term effects of stomach bleeding, increased blood pressure, fluid retention and reduced kidney function.

Take ibuprofen on a full stomach or with a glass of milk, to reduce the likelihood of stomach upset.

Naproxen​​ sodium

Naproxen sodium is commonly used to reduce pain, swelling and joint stiffness caused by arthritis, bursitis or gout, among other conditions. It also can be used to reduce fever.

Naproxen sodium is marketed under the brand name Aleve®. It is a longer-lasting medication than acetaminophen or ibuprofen, so it should be taken less frequently, reducing the risk for stomach upset. Taking this medication on a full stomach or with a glass of milk also reduces the likelihood of stomach upset.

Because of possible allergic reaction, naproxen sodium should not be given to children under age 12 without physician approval.


Unless specifically directed by a physician, persons under age 20 should not be given aspirin. Aspirin given at this age can increase the risk of Reye syndrome, a serious disease that can cause drowsiness, confusion, seizures, coma, and in severe cases, death.

Alternatives to OTC pain relievers

If an injury happens during an athletic event, your athletic trainer may have you use other forms of therapy with or instead of OTC pain relievers. Common treatments your trainer may suggest include ice, stretching, heat or other physical therapy exercises.

OTC pain relievers should not be your only course of treatment for an injury. In many cases, they may not be needed. Follow directions carefully. If you have questions about your medication choice, talk with your physician.

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