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Relieving Pain Without Creating a Headache

man holding knee

Managing pain can be a challenge, considering the type of pain people can experience is almost as vast as the type of treatments available. Robert McLean, MD, regional medical director, Northeast Medical Group, New Haven, helps patients understand over-the-counter treatment options and when it’s best to see your primary care clinician.

He noted that soft tissue injuries, musculoskeletal issues and vascular pain, like some headaches, all have different sources which may require different approaches.

“When a clinician is approaching someone with pain, the first questions are, ‘What type of pain is it,’ and ‘What caused it,’” explained Dr. McLean, a rheumatologist. “After headaches, the most common sources for everyday pains are musculoskeletal, in the areas of muscles and joints. They are often caused by overuse of joints like knees and shoulders. This usually happens during exercise or from working around the house.”

Most people initially self-treat when they first experience pain. Over-the-counter medicines like Advil® (ibuprofen) and Tylenol® (acetaminophen) are made to treat headaches and the soreness that comes from minor bumps and bruises. Dr. McLean said these readily available pain relievers are often effective for mild aches and pains, especially when following recommended dosage directions.

“When we’re talking about everyday aches and pains, if a few aspirin take care of it, then that is OK to use,” he said. “As a doctor, I’m not very concerned about some of the things that can cause headaches if some Tylenol® makes it go away. But if it’s not getting better, or you’re continuing to take these medications for several days or weeks, then you should visit your doctor to see if something more serious is wrong or if a more effective treatment is available.”

Dr. McLean stresses that all over-the-counter medications are not the same, even if they do a good job of eliminating the pain.

“There is a big difference between medicines like Tylenol® or aspirin, and other pain relievers like Advil® or Aleve® (naproxen),” he said. “Acetaminophen helps block pain receptors and helps reduce fevers. Ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin do the same thing but also have anti-inflammatory effects.”

He added that acetaminophen is generally safe for most people in recommended doses. It does not typically harm the stomach or kidneys. Medicines like ibuprofen and naproxen, however, can increase the risk of damaging the stomach lining or impacting kidney function if people take too much. Dr. McLean recommends checking with your doctor if you have issues with your liver, gastrointestinal tract or kidneys. He said that’s the best way to be sure these over-the-counter medications are safe for you.

Regardless of the severity of the pain or the effectiveness of treatment, Dr. McLean said it’s important to call your doctor if pain persists. “It’s great if a few ibuprofen tablets, a couple times a day, take care of your pain,” he said. “But it’s not getting to the underlying cause. Having a clinician take a good look into the situation can make all the difference because they may be able to identify the cause. Once we have the cause, we can make a plan to prevent it from happening again or to determine a better solution.”

Learn more about pain management and find a specialist near you.