A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

What to know about OTC pain relievers

Acetaminophen, ibuprofen or aspirin, which pain relief medication is right for your sports injury or ailment?

Several options are available for over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medications.

In reality, an athlete’s trainer, sports medicine physician or provider is not going to use over-the-counter pain relief first. Our initial action is usually ice and heat, stretching or physical therapy,” said Dr. Jacob Lonsdale, a non-operative pediatric orthopedist at Marshfield Clinic. “Pain relievers may help, but they may not be needed.”

OTC medicine can help relieve pain from athletic injuries, though Lonsdale cautions long-term use. Always talk to your provider before taking new medication.

Weight scale weighing two bottles of pain relievers, illustration - Basics of OTC pain relievers

Which pain relief medication is right for your sports injury or ailment?

OTC pain reliever basics

Acetaminophen is commonly used for:

  • Headaches
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Minor aches and pains
  • Fever

An example brand of acetaminophen is Tylenol®. This pain reliever does not reduce inflammation or swelling caused by an injury. It also usually does not cause stomach upset as can some other OTC pain relievers.

“Many other OTC medications, like those for cold or flu, contain acetaminophen,” Lonsdale said. “Read labels carefully so you do not take more of the medicine than recommended.”

Ibuprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) mostly used for:

  • Pain management
  • Inflammation and swelling
  • Fever
  • Menstrual cramps

Ibuprofen is marketed under brand names like Advil® and Motrin®.

Ibuprofen may cause stomach upset if not used at the correct dosage.

Use caution. Excessive dosing can lead to long-term effects of stomach bleeding, increased blood pressure, fluid retention and reduced kidney function.

Take ibuprofen on a full stomach or with a glass of milk, to reduce likelihood of stomach upset.

Naproxen​​ sodium is used for:

  • Pain
  • Inflammation and swelling
  • Joint stiffness caused by arthritis, bursitis or gout and similar conditions
  • Fever

It’s important to understand ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin are in the same family of medications, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), and should not be taken together or overlapped in dosing,” Lonsdale said. “On the other hand, acetaminophen and NSAIDS are not related and can be taken together and overlapped.”

Naproxen sodium is marketed under the brand name Aleve®.

“This is a longer-lasting medication than acetaminophen or ibuprofen, so it should be taken less frequently, reducing risk for stomach upset,” Lonsdale said.

Similar to ibuprofen, it is best to take this medication on a full stomach or with a glass of milk to reduce likelihood of stomach upset.

Use caution. Because of possible allergic reaction, naproxen sodium should not be given to children under age 12 without physician approval. 


Unless specifically directed by your provider, those under age 20 should not take aspirin. At this age, aspirin increases risk of Reye’s syndrome, a serious disease that can cause drowsiness, confusion, seizures, coma, and in severe cases, death.

Remember, aspirin is a NSAID and should not be taken with similar medications like ibuprofen and naproxen.

There are other options

As mentioned earlier, we do recommend first using ice, rest, compression and gentle physical therapy. Pain relievers can follow these treatments if needed and recommended,” he said.

You might also talk to your provider or trainer about topical products.

Some herbal products claim to treat inflammation and pain. More research needs to be completed for better understanding of their effectiveness. 

Ask questions, be mindful

“It’s simple to compare which OTC medications can do what. It’s not simple to list possible side effects. How your body reacts to any medication has a lot to do with your health, underlying medical conditions and regular medications or prescriptions,” Lonsdale said.

Always carefully read medication labels. Pay close attention to warnings, the “ask a doctor before use if” section and directions. Finally, ask your provider or trainer about other options to find the best fit for you.

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