Anti-Inflammatory Medications for Muscle Strain and Injury

Rheumatoid arthritis, general practitioner examining patient and hand for signs of rheumatoid arthri : Stock Photo CompAdd to Board Caption:Rheumatoid arthritis. General practitioner examining a patient's hand for signs of rheumatoid arthritis. This condition is caused by the immune system attacking the body's own tissues, causing progressive joint and cartilage destruction. As the cartilage is worn away, new bone grows as part of the repair process. This causes stiffness and deformity of the fingers. Treatment is with anti-inflammatory drugs and physiotherapy. Rheumatoid arthritis, general practitioner examining patient and hand for signs of rheumatoid arthritis
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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, and anti-inflammatories can target those symptoms.

What Are Anti-Inflammatory Medications?

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are medications that help reduce inflammation, swelling, and fever, and relieve pain. Common anti-inflammatory medications include aspirin (Bayer, Bufferin, Ecotrin), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen sodium (Aleve).

Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication is typically used to minimize inflammation. These drugs 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.

How to Treat Muscle Inflammation

Over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory medications work by reducing the inflammation (including swelling) that occurs as a result of injury. And since inflammation can cause pain by compressing nerves, reducing that swelling should also help reduce pain.

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 differently.

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). You can also take NSAIDs to relieve pain.

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.

Use ice, rather than heat, for acute sports injuries. Heat may be helpful to ease muscle tension in chronic aches and pains.

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 them 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.

Side Effects and Considerations

NSAIDs are meant to be used for short term and immediate treatment of muscle pain and injury. It's important to follow proper dosage instructions for the medication, and to speak with your doctor before trying any pain relief options, including complementary and alternative medicines.

While NSAIDs are available over-the-counter, they do have potential serious side effects, including:

  • Bronchospasm
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding
  • Kidney injury
  • Myocardial infarction
  • Stroke

Always consult with your doctor before taking any medication, or if pain has not gone away after a few days of using NSAIDs.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the best anti-inflammatory medications?

While there are many NSAIDs available over the counter, finding the best one for you may require trying different options. Consult with your doctor prior to beginning NSAID treatment. Your doctor may change the anti-inflammatory medication if the one you're using has not helped ease muscle pain or inflammation after a few weeks of use.

What medications can you take for pain that aren't anti-inflammatory?

Acetaminophen is a popular alternative to anti-inflammatory medications. Known by the brand name Tylenol, this medication works to relieve pain and fever, but does not reduce inflammation.

What medications can protect your stomach from anti-inflammatory medications?

To prevent stomach pain and ulcers as a result of taking NSAIDs, your doctor may prescribe misoprostol, proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), or double dose H2-receptor antagonists (H2RAs), which have been found to prevent gastric troubles caused by NSAIDs.

A Word From Verywell

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are commonly used to treat muscle aches, strains, and sports injuries. While the medication is available over-the-counter, it's important to consult with your primary care physician or sports medicine doctor to determine the best treatment plan for you.

7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Sprains and strains.

  3. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Sprains, strains and other soft-tissue injuries.

  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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  7. Rostom A, Dube C, Wells G, et al. Prevention of NSAID-induced gastroduodenal ulcersCochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002;(4):CD002296. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD002296

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.