Anti-Inflammatory Medications for Injury Relief

Athletes often use anti-inflammatory medications to treat muscle aches and pains. But some over the counter drugs can cause more harm than help. It's important for athletes to know when to use an anti-inflammatory and when to stay away from the medicine cabinet.

Injuries to the soft tissues of the body—the muscles, tendons, and ligaments—are typically classified as either acute or chronic injuries, depending on the onset and duration of the injury. Most soft-tissue injuries are painful because of the swelling and inflammation that occurs after an injury.

Pain relief is often the main reason that you may want over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory medications as they work by reducing the inflammation that occurs as a result of your injury. It's helpful to know the warning signs of a serious injury in order to determine the best treatment, but in general acute and chronic injuries are treated in the following ways.

Acute Injuries

If you have an acute injury caused by a sudden impact—a collision, fall, or twisting motion—you'll notice pain, swelling and other signs of trauma almost immediately. The first course of treatment for these acute injuries is to follow the R.I.C.E. method of injury treatment (rest, ice, compression, and elevation). The treatment for acute sports injuries starts by applying ice; heat may be helpful to ease muscle tension in chronic aches and pains.

The most common acute injuries are tears, sprains, ​and strains to muscles and ligaments. Tears can range from a minor partial tear to a complete tear (rupture) that requires surgical repair. Acute injuries have varying degrees of inflammation at the injury site. The role of the inflammatory cells is to help the body remove debris and dead cells and help healing.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Pain Medications for Acute Injuries

Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication is typically used to minimize inflammation. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are commonly used to reduce inflammation. These are best used immediately after the injury, before swelling occurs. Side effects may include stomach upset. There are some medications that include both anti-inflammatory treatment and pain relief.

Chronic Injuries

Chronic soft-tissue injuries often begin as a mild, nagging pain that just never goes away. Tendinitis is a common chronic injury you may be familiar with. Treat chronic injuries with rest, physical therapy, and over-the-counter NSAIDs. In these cases, NSAIDs provide pain relief, but don't help aid healing.

Physicians may use corticosteroids to treat chronic soft-tissue injuries. Local site injections can result in quick pain relief. Long-term use of corticosteroids isn't recommended. Most physicians avoid using corticosteroids in weight-bearing tendons, such as the Achilles tendon, due to a potential weakening of the tendon over time. Steroids are much more commonly used in the upper body.

Pain relief with these injections is temporary, so don't depend on these to help you treat the problem. They are only treating the symptom of pain and should not be used over a long period of time.

Long-Term Relief

Although anti-inflammatory medication can be helpful in the short term, long-term use of these medications is discouraged. Additionally, NSAIDs aren't recommended for use before or during endurance sports.

Several studies have found little actual performance benefit of taking ibuprofen and warn that it may mask pain, which can lead to increased risk of injury. Other studies have cautioned that the use of NSAIDs during ultra distance exercise is associated with an increased risk of exertional hyponatremia.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Institue of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Sprains and strains. Updated January 2015.

  2. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Sprains, strains and other soft-tissue injuries. Updated June 2020.

  3. Harvard Health Publishing. Tendonitis. Updated December 2014.

  4. Nepple JJ, Matava MJ. Soft tissue injections in the athlete. Sports Health. 2009;1(5):396-404. doi:10.1177/1941738109343159

  5. Chabbey E, Martin PY. [Renal risks of NSAIDs in endurance sports]. Rev Med Suisse. 2019;15(639):444-447.

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