When your head starts to pound, it can be tempting to pop whatever non-prescription pain relievers are in your medicine cabinet. However, it’s important to be selective about what you take, says Barbara De Angelis, a pharmacist in Mississauga, Ont. “Getting the right over-the-counter [OTC] medicine will ensure that you effectively treat your pain,” she says. “Knowing what dose is right for you, when to expect relief and what side effects to look for will help you stay safe and pain-free.”
Choosing the Right Pain Reliever
“Acetaminophen is a reasonable first step for taming mild tension-type headaches,” says Dr. Christine Lay, a headache neurologist and director of the Centre for Headache at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. However, it may not be quite as effective as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for migraine relief. Acetaminophen is a good option for people with sensitive stomachs because it doesn’t irritate the lining of the stomach. “It’s also the safest pain reliever for pregnant women,” adds De Angelis.
Ibuprofen calms the pain associated with tension headaches and migraines. Keep in mind that ibuprofen (and other NSAIDs) can affect kidney function and may cause your blood pressure to go up. NSAIDs can also cause stomach ulcers that bleed and should be used with caution by people who take blood thinners. Occasional ibuprofen use is generally safe, but ask your doctor for advice if you need help with chronic pain relief.
This NSAID is stronger than ibuprofen. “If you have a headache that tends to linger for a few hours, naproxen might be a better choice,” Lay says. It’s less likely than acetaminophen to promote medication-overuse headaches (headaches that can occur if you regularly take pain medication more than twice a week) because you generally need to take fewer pills for relief.
4. Acetylsalicylic Acid (ASA or Aspirin)
“Aspirin has been proven effective in treating migraines,” says Lay. What sets ASA apart is that “it increases the amount of time it takes for your blood to clot,” adds De Angelis. Due to its blood-thinning action, avoid ASA if you have a bleeding disorder or bleeding stomach ulcers.
OTC Dosage Rules
In general, follow the instructions on the bottle. There are a couple of important exceptions: If you’re on other medications, ask your doctor if pain relievers are appropriate for you. To prevent irreversible liver damage, don’t take more than the recommended amount of acetaminophen. The total daily dose that is safe for most adults is 3,250 to 4,000 mg.
Also, take care to avoid using pain relievers on a long-term basis. While they are effective to help get rid of an occasional headache, using OTCs more than twice a week, on a regular basis, can cause your headaches to worsen and become more frequent. “Patients develop medication-overuse headaches,” says Lay. “They have to take more meds and they get less benefit.” Your body builds up a tolerance over time.
Timing Is Everything
If you take OTCs as soon as your symptoms appear, you can get relief within an hour or two depending on the severity of your headache. “The longer you wait, the worse your headache will get and the less likely your medicines will be helpful,” says Lay. Want faster pain relief? Consider a formulation that includes caffeine, as it speeds up the rate at which the pain reliever is absorbed, says Lay.
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