There are multiple over-the-counter (non-prescription) and prescription medications that can be helpful in relieving pain and addressing related symptoms while an episode of back pain is getting better. Careful attention to pain management is a critical component of a patient’s recovery, as acute or chronic low back pain can lead to depression, difficulty sleeping, and difficulty exercising and stretching, all of which in turn can exacerbate and prolong a painful back condition.
Pain relievers are generally available in three forms: oral, topical, and injection
- Oral pain medications. There are many forms of pain medications that are taken by mouth – pill or liquid form – and they each work differently and have unique benefits and potential risks. Some are available only by prescription.
- Topical pain medications. These products are applied to the skin and are intended to reduce localized pain, such as pain from a sore muscle or from an arthritic joint. Most are available without a prescription. Brands of several popular topical pain relievers include Icy Hot, Arthricare, Zostrix (capsaicin), Aspercreme, Ben Gay, and many store brands.
- Injections. Pain relieving medication and/or anti-inflammatory medications can be injected directly to the source of the pain.
While there are many over-the-counter pain medications used to address back pain, the two most common types are acetaminophen (for example, brand name Tylenol) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs (for example, brand name Advil). Because acetaminophen and NSAIDs work differently to address the pain, they may be taken at the same time. For example, a patient in severe pain may take the recommended dose of acetaminophen, and then two to three hours later take the recommended dose of ibuprofen, and repeat this pattern as appropriate.
Prescription Pain Medications
For short periods of time, prescription medications (such as narcotic pain medications or muscle relaxants) may be helpful to alleviate pain or related complications. Other classes of drugs (such as antidepressants or anti-seizure medications) can also help modulate the sensation of pain and can be taken on a prolonged basis.
There are risks, side effects, and drug interactions with any medication, so a medical professional should always be consulted prior to taking medications. Patients should be especially cautious with medications if they are on other medications or have any significant medical conditions (e.g. diabetes).
While a few major risks and side effects are outlined for some medications on this site, patients should always read the label and package inserts and consult with a physician for a complete understanding of risks, side effects, and drug interactions.