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Over-the-Counter Meds or Prescription Painkillers: a Pros and Cons List

OTC Medication Pros & Cons photo by frankieleon / CC by 2.0

If you are suffering from chronic pain, you may be wondering whether over-the-counter (OTC) medications or prescription painkillers are the best option for you. Like any other treatment, much depends on the individual patient and circumstance, however, there are characteristics of each that can make the choice easier. Consulting with a trusted medical professional is the first step to establishing a pain management program that works for you.

“Americans living with chronic pain can get safe relief, but it is important to work with a healthcare professional to effectively manage chronic pain,” said CBS News. “Individuals obviously need a prescription for any kind of narcotic”, but “chronic pain should never be self-managed with OTC medicines,” either.

The following Pros and Cons list may help your decision.

Prescription Medications: Pros

  • May give you the best control over pain, at least initially
  • Effective pain management can help you to heal
  • Keeping pain at bay can also help keep you mentally strong

Medical professionals often prescribe medications like opioids because of their ability to help control chronic pain and foster the healing process. “The purpose of prescribing opioids for chronic pain is to allow someone who is in pain to function more normally,” said emedicine health.

Opioids include narcotic drugs like codeine, morphine, oxycodone, OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percodan, and they have “have been regarded for millennia as among the most effective drugs for the treatment of pain,” said the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). “Their use in the management of acute severe pain and chronic pain related to advanced medical illness is considered the standard of care in most of the world.”

But, the concerns about the relationship between opioid use and addiction have led “to uncertainly about the appropriate role of these drugs in the treatment of pain,” NCBI said. This paradox is continuing to play out in the medical community, which balances opioids’ effectiveness in pain management against the potential dangers.

Prescription Meds: Cons

  • Can quickly become addictive
  • Can lead to overdose
  • May not be effective long term
  • Can get expensive and may not be covered by insurance

The most important factors when considering opioids or other prescription drugs are the addictive properties. According to addiction specialist Dr. Anna Lempke, opioids work “great in the short term but don’t work very well if used daily over many weeks, and the reason for that is because the body adapts to the presence of the opioid.” And for some, she continued, “that means increasingly high doses, which can lead to addiction.”

“These potent medications are prescribed for acute or chronic pain, as well as to relieve pain after surgery,” said WebMD. “They work by blocking pain perception. But, they can also be abused.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, 46 people die from an overdose of prescription painkillers every day. Data obtained from Medicinenet.com reports that “about 16 million people in the U.S. abuse prescription medications.” With 100 million Americans who live with chronic pain, as of a 2011 Institute of Medicine report, the incidence of prescription painkillers abuse looks to be on the rise.

Over the counter meds: Pros

  • Reduced chance of becoming addicted
  • Convenience of buying what you want, when you want without a prescription

OTC medications provide relief for many minor aches and pains from back pain , sore joints, headaches, and more. No physician prescription is required and they are frequently less expensive the prescribed pain killers.

The fact that those suffering with chronic pain can take OTC medications without the same fear of becoming addicted is key for many individuals. Anti-inflammatory medicines like Advil and Aleve can also provide comfort for those who cannot take prescriptions because of other medications they’re taking or due to a previous addiction.

Over-the-Counter Meds: Cons

  • Pain management can be more difficult to achieve
  • Long-term use of some over-the-counter meds can be dangerous
  • Mixing with other drugs can turn deadly

While it may seem harmless to pop a couple of Advil or Tylenol when you’re in pain, over-the-counter meds have their own risks, especially for long-term use.

The Cleveland Clinic states that “for common, occasional aches and pain, an over-the-counter oral medication often does the trick but experts warn people with chronic, ongoing pain to avoid long-term use of common remedies such as Tylenol® or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), including aspirin, ibuprofen, Aleve® and Advil®.”

Health risks of prolonged use of OTC medications can include kidney and liver problems, elevated blood pressure, and even “increase the risk of heart attack or stroke, and cause stomach ulcers or bleeding,” according to the Cleveland Clinic.

“Most probably take for granted that the pills are safe and effective, but it’s easy to make dangerous mistakes when using these products, according to a survey by the American Gastroenterological Association,” said CBS News. “Results show that people who take OTC medicines for chronic pain often mix the medicines with other drugs, view label instructions as general suggestions, ignore signs of an overdose, and fail to mention their OTC medicine use in conversations with doctors.”

Alternatives to Narcotics and OTC Medicines

There are other prescription medications that may help with chronic pain—antidepressants, topical pain relief creams, and transdermal patches that deliver pain relief through the skin, to name a few.

For many suffering with chronic pain, the answer may include surgery. Advances in minimally invasive surgical techniques means treating chronic back pain is easier than ever, with outpatient treatments, small incisions, and a quicker recovery time instead of a long hospital stay.

For more information, contact Disc Spine Institute, experts in minimally invasive treatments, the most effective medical procedures to treat and eliminate chronic back pain.

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