Pain Relievers Aren’t Perfect

More than 170 million Americans take some form of over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers. These pain relievers don’t require a prescription and can treat mild to moderate pain. Most are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which target the substance responsible for nerve pain. Other options include acetaminophen, which can interrupt pain signals to the brain. Pain relievers can provide substantial relief for long periods, but there are times when these drugs are ineffective. Here are 4 scenarios where OTC pain medication is not enough.

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1. Have you developed a tolerance to medication?

Since many consumers take pain relievers consistently, the drug is possibly no longer effective. Taking too much pain medicine or taking these drugs too quickly causes medication tolerance. However, most scenarios happen over time. In short, the brain and body no longer respond to the standard or even a higher drug dose. At this point, a doctor should assess the source of the pain and provide more medical support.

2. Is your condition more severe?

Pain is often classified as acute or chronic. Acute pain happens immediately after an accident, fall, or collision. The pain is intense, sharp, and associated with the accident. Chronic pain is long-standing, constant pain. This pain builds up over time. In some cases, acute pain can lead to chronic pain. Chronic pain is hard to treat, and OTC pain relievers may not be sufficient. The injury may be too severe or require other forms of treatment. There may be ligament damage, a sprain, or joint damage. Speak with a doctor for more options, such as steroid injections, physical therapy, or surgery.

3. An underlying medical issue

Pain relievers seek to relieve musculoskeletal pain or inflammation. However, there are scenarios where the drug cannot work because of an unrelated issue. For instance, hormone fluctuations due to a thyroid issue can prevent pain relievers from working. Another scenario is poor gut health. An underlying gastrointestinal condition can affect how the body processes the medication. This underlying issue must be addressed to improve the effectiveness of pain relievers.

4. You are experiencing breakthrough pain

Some patients may have a known injury or condition like osteoarthritis that can benefit from pain relievers. However, there are times when the medication will not work. The pain can actually feel worse than before, a scenario called breakthrough pain. These are flare-ups that are quick, sharp, then disappear. This pain breaks through the effectiveness of the OTC drug. Sometimes, there is no trigger, but a sudden movement or activity can cause breakthrough pain. This condition is often mistreated by increasing OTC medication, but a doctor may need to provide alternative options.

Exploring next steps

OTC medication can help manage acute or chronic pain. Yet, these alone may not be enough in some scenarios. An underlying issue or a more severe injury would require further support. A pain specialist can assess the problem further and provide other options, even if the patient prefers to avoid more potent opioids.


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