What Drugs are Best for Acute Pain Management?

Amanda Barnhart

Many over-the-counter and prescription medications are available for acute pain management. Some reduce pain, and others have anti-inflammatory properties to reduce swelling that can lead to painful joints and muscles. Acetaminophen, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), local anesthetics, corticosteroids, and opioids are the most common drugs used for acute pain management.

Acetaminophen is commonly taken to manage acute pain.
Acetaminophen is commonly taken to manage acute pain.

Acetaminophen is a common over-the-counter pain reliever that does not contain anti-inflammatory properties, making it a good choice for people suffering from acute pain that is not due to an injury or swelling. While acetaminophen is safe for most people, it is vital to take it only as directed. Though the drug is widely available over-the-counter, taking more than the recommended amount can lead to liver failure. Acetaminophen is present in many prescription pain killers, so it is important for patients to consult with their doctors before taking acetaminophen if they are taking prescription pain medication.

It can be difficult to assess and manage pain for some patients who experience acute pain.
It can be difficult to assess and manage pain for some patients who experience acute pain.

NSAIDs reduce inflammation and swelling throughout the body. They are widely recommended for acute pain management, particularly for pain that results from an injury or a chronic inflammatory condition such as arthritis or tendinitis. NSAIDs are safe for most people to take for short periods of time, though chronic use can lead to stomach problems and ulcers.

Local anesthetics can provide temporary relief of mild pain by numbing the area or making the nerves less sensitive. Over-the-counter creams and gels that contain numbing agents can be applied directly to the skin to help relieve pain. Gels to numb the teeth and gums are also available over-the-counter for patients with pain from dental problems. Prescription topical anesthetics include more powerful numbing creams and patches to help manage short-term pain.

Corticosteroids relieve pain, swelling, redness, and itching. They are available in topical form, though doctors usually prescribe injections or pills for patients with pain. Corticosteroids are best for patients who require acute pain management, as opposed to people who require long-term pain relief due to the risk of side effects with extended use. Weight gain, mood changes, headaches, and a weakened immune system are concerns for patients on corticosteroids, though these side effects are limited in patients who take the lowest effective dose of the drug possible for the shortest length of time.

Opioids are extremely strong pain relievers available only by prescription such as morphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone. These narcotic pain killers are reserved for patients who require acute pain management for pain that does not respond to weaker drugs and other treatment methods. Doctors often prescribe opioids for short periods of time following surgery or major injuries. Narcotic pain killers carry a high risk of addiction. Patients should take these medications exactly as directed and refrain from suddenly stopping the medication to prevent withdrawal symptoms.

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