Pain Relievers: Know the difference

Ever have a bad headache, pulled muscle/muscle soreness, fever, cramps, or swollen joints. Many of us have experienced one, if not a few, of these symptoms. And how many of us reached into our medicine cabinets for a quick fix of over the counter relief? I'm sure I'll see quite a few hands raise for that.

Are you grabbing the correct drug for your symptom? Do you know the difference between Tylenol, Advil, Motrin, and Aspirin? I'm here to educate you on the differences as you may not be taking the right one for you.

Over the counter medications are those that you can find at most stores without a prescription from your doctor. You may also find generic brands out there, that are basically the same as the name brand (same ingredients, just a different name) that are a cheaper option.

First and foremost, if you have any underlying problems or on different medications, it is always a good idea to consult with you doctor to make sure none of these drugs will interact with the ones you are currently taking. Secondly, always read the instructions of proper dosing. Taking more than the recommended amount can lead to other complications. Lastly, there is always a reason why you had pain in the first place. So always know the reasoning as to why you have symptoms rather than going to medicine to correct it.

NSAIDs (Non Steroidal Anti Inflammatory Drugs)

In medicinal terms, NSAIDs are used to decreased the amount of prostaglandins your body makes when there is a stressor that causes pain. They help to reduce fevers, cramps, muscle aches/sprains, and inflammation.

These include Aspirin, Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and Naproxen (Aleve)

Aspirin (Acetylsalicylic Acid) are used to treat pain, fever, and inflammation. It also has properties to reduce heart attacks when taken daily, and reduce death when taken during a heart attack.

Aleve (Naproxen Sodium) usually remains in the system longer than any other NSAID. It is also named as Midol which markets towards menstrual cramps due to containing caffeine and mild antihistamine. Side note, it may upset the stomach more and have more side effects than Ibuprofen.

Advil (Ibuprefen) is very similar to Aleve, except may be required to take more doses (every 4-6 hours vs every 8-12 hours)

Motrin is basically the same as Advil, with similar side effects and dosing.


Acetaminophen also helps reduce pain by blocking your brain from releasing substances that cause the feeling of pain. It does not help reduce inflammation, but rather help to treat headaches, muscle aches, and arthritis.

These include Tylenol, Anacin and Panadol.

Tylenol treats pain and fevers, but not inflammation. It may be used instead of NSAIDs if you have high blood pressure or stomach ulcers as it's easier on the stomach, however may cause liver damage and failure in high doses.


Prescriptions are no available over the counter and must be prescribed by your doctor.

Corticosteroids are used to decrease inflammation, redness, itching, asthma, arthritis, and allergic reactions. Examples are Prednisone, Prednisolone, and Methylprednisolone.

Opioids are used for acute pain, especially after surgery. It is considered a narcotic. Examples are Codeine, Morphine, Oxycodone, Oxycodone-Acetaminophen (Percocet), Fentanyl, and Hydrocodone-Acetaminophen (Vicodin).

Antidepressants are used mainly to treat emotional conditions that adjust levels of neurotransmitters in the brains, but can also help to relieve pain. Examples include Fluoxetine (Prozac), Paroxetine (Paxil), Citalopram (Celexa), Sertraline (Zoloft), Duloxetine (Cymbalta), Desipramine (Norpramin), Nortripytline (Pamelor, and Imipramine (Tofranil).

Anticonvulsants are used to treat seizure disorders, and sometimes effective to treat pain especially dealign with nerves. Examples include Carbamazepine (Tegretol), Gabapentin (Neurontin) and Pregabalin (Lyrica)