How to Avoid Surprising Risks of OTC Pain Medications

4 Smarter Ways to Treat Chronic Pain

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For common, occasional aches and pain, an over-the-counter oral medication often does the trick. But experts warn people with chronic, ongoing pain to avoid long-term use of common remedies such as Tylenol® or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), including aspirin, ibuprofen, Aleve® and Advil®.

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Hong Shen, MD, a pain management specialist at Cleveland Clinic, cautions that using these medications long-term can harm your health, especially if you are older or have other medical conditions.

“People should use these over-the-counter medications for short-term relief only,” says Dr. Shen.

She says that over a long period of time, these medications can damage the liver and kidneys, increase the risk of heart attack or stroke, and cause stomach ulcers or bleeding.  They also can cause serious problems for people taking other drugs. For example, if you take over-the-counter NSAIDs with blood thinners, excessive bleeding can result.

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4 smart, low-risk ways to treat chronic pain

For long-term pain relief, Dr. Shen recommends these four lower risk over-the-counter treatments. She says these remedies can help with pain as a result of arthritis, bursitis, fibromyalgia and other inflammation:

    1. Topical pain killers include sprays, patches and creams that you can apply over painful muscles or joints. These remedies often provide a mild burning or cooling sensation, which feels good and helps to distract us from feeling pain. These items often include menthol, camphor, salicylates or capsaicin, which all can penetrate through the skin to relieve the pain. Dr. Shen says these topical medications are safer than oral medications.
    2. Nutritional supplements can help knee arthritis include fish oil along with glucosamine products. Fish oil contains two omega-3 fatty acids—DHA and EPS. A typical daily dosage of omega-3 would be about 1 to 2 grams of OTC fish oil. To determine the right dose for you, Dr. Shen recommends talking to your doctor first. “Too much omega-3 can also cause bleeding, so you have to use them with care,” she says. Dr. Shen says nutritional supplements and diet changes may take longer to work than medications, but, in the long run, they can have a big impact on reducing the inflammation that causes pain. Because they get to the source of the pain,  she says they are her “favorite treatments.”
    3. An anti-inflammatory diet includes different colored vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables,  fruit, and some fish. At the same time, you need to avoid sugar and white flour in foods, which cause inflammation in your body. In addition, foods rich in omega-3, curry and ginger, all serve as anti-inflammatories. “I always tell my patients to treat their food as medicine,” Dr. Shen says. “And over time, they are often amazed at what a healthy diet can do to relieve their pain. It serves as an ant-inflammatory in the body and will help to keep you trim.”
    4. Keeping an optimal weight for your frame is the single best way to relieve pain, especially in the lower extremities, Dr. Shen says. “Excess weight on your joints was once considered the cause of osteoarthritis,” she says. “But recent research shows that body fat is actually metabolically active and capable of producing hormones and chemicals that increase levels of inflammation.” She says this is what leads to osteoarthritis and pain. She says,  “If you lose a few pounds, it can help you feel better.”

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