Over the Counter Pain Medication for Sports Injuries

close-up of a woman wearing an ankle support and holding a tube of anti-inflammatory cream

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Most athletes will use an over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication at some point to cope with minor aches, pains, and injuries. These drugs are some of the most widely used medications, but they aren't always well understood by most of the people who take them. They are reliable and effective when used appropriately for moderate pain relief, but they also have risks and potential side effects.

Types of Pain Medications

There are two basic types of over-the-counter pain relievers: Acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include aspirin.

Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen (examples include Tylenol and Panadol) is effective at reducing pain and fever, but not inflammation. It works by acting on the serotonergic, endocannabinoid, and vanilloid systems of the brain and is considered a safe pain reliever for children and adults, although high doses may damage the liver.

Acetaminophen is often recommended for arthritis-related pain because it doesn't cause stomach irritation.

NSAIDs

NSAIDs are effective at reducing aches, pain, fever, and inflammation. They work by blocking all prostaglandins, substances produced by the body that act as mediators for a variety of physiologic functions, including those related to these issues, as well as protection of the stomach lining and regulation of blood pressure (relaxes blood vessels and prevents clot formation).

However, NSAIDs can cause stomach upset or gastrointestinal bleeding in some people, aren't recommended for use before or during endurance sports, and are not considered safe for pregnant women. The risk of problems increases with long-term use.

Non-Aspirin Options

Non-aspirin NSAIDs include Advil and Motrin (ibuprofen), Aleve (naproxen sodium), and Orudis KT (ketoprofen).

These NSAID options have been shown to be more effective in treating pain than the same dose of acetaminophen, but they also increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.

Aspirin

Though classified as an NSAID, aspirin has some unique properties:

  • it acts as a blood thinner and can help prevent blood clots.
  • it's the only pain reliever shown to reduce the risk of heart attack.
  • it may reduce colon cancer risk.

Topical pain medications used by athletes (Bengay, Aspercreme, and Sportscreme) often contain salicylates (methyl salicylates), the same ingredients found in aspirin. They are effective pain relievers that also reduce inflammation when absorbed by the skin and used appropriately, but topical salicylate toxicity is possible with prolonged use.

Aspirin should not be taken by children under 16 who have chickenpox or flu symptoms, due to the risk of Reye's syndrome (it should never be used by kids under 3). It is also not recommended for those with stomach problems, ulcers, kidney disease, bleeding disorders, or aspirin allergies.

A Word From Verywell

If you take any supplements or medications for another medical condition (such as high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes, an ulcer, or even acne), ask your doctor or pharmacist about possible interactions between them and these OTC pain medications before taking them.

If you feel the need to take a pain reliever for more than 10 days, consult with your doctor to ensure that other treatment is not necessary and that continued use of the medication you're taking is safe for you.

Read and follow the label directions and don't take more than the recommended dose.

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