Pain, pain, go away

Experts weigh in on the best over-the-counter pills for your ache

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Post-workout muscle pain

Best bets:  Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or ASA (Aspirin). Ibuprofen reduces muscle inflammation and swelling, as well as pain. Topical pain-relieving ointments—some of which contain ASA—are available if tablets upset your stomach.

Consider revising your routine if you regularly have pain post-exercise. Adds Meek: “Nothing works better than RICE [rest, ice, compression, elevation] for soft tissue injury."

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Menstrual pain

Best bets: Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or another anti-inflammatory. Prostaglandin suppression decreases pain, cramps and even bleeding, says Feldman.

Take medication six to 12 hours before you anticipate the pain starting, and keep treating it until the pain passes. Then stop: long-term use of NSAIDs may lead to ulcers, gastrointestinal bleeding and kidney damage.

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Migraine pain

Best bets:  Advil Liqui-Gels. Also good: Bayer Aspirin Express (ASA granules that dissolve on your tongue). Liquid ibuprofen works 10 to 15 minutes faster than ibuprofen tablets, while rapidly absorbed ASA granules can be taken without water and go to work quickly.  That’s helpful when each minute feels like an eternity, says Meek.  

Take medication at the first sign of migraine—the longer you wait, the harder it is to relieve pain.
If OTC meds don’t work and your pain is more severe than usual, different, or accompanied by fever and vomiting, see your doctor.

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Low back pain

Best bets: Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), ASA (Aspirin, Bufferin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol).

Ice and stretching can also be effective for acute lower back pain. “Bed rest used to be suggested, but most experts do not recommend this now,” says Knight. See your family doctor if back pain lasts more than a few days.

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Headache pain

Best bets: Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and ASA (Aspirin, Bufferin). Also good: acetaminophen (Tylenol). Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs such as Ibuprofen and ASA, but NOT Tylenol), decrease production of pain-triggering prostaglandins.

Start low and go slow: Take just what you need for relief. Daily or frequent use of pain medications, as well as their misuse or
overuse, can cause rebound headaches. Also, avoid taking more than one type of NSAID at a time, since
multiple NSAIDs may cause adverse health effects, according to a
January 2008 study from Duke University.

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Whether it’s a pounding headache, post-workout muscle soreness or back pain, there’s a growing array of over-the-counter (OTC) analgesics to relieve your “ouch.” Plus, new and improved formulations make them easier to swallow, more targeted and faster to take effect. To get the straight goods on what remedy works best for different types of pain, Best Health spoke to three pain-relief pros: Warren Meek, president-elect of the Canadian Pharmacists Association and a community pharmacist in Halifax; Dr. Kymm Feldman, a family physician at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto; and Dr. Brian Knight, an anesthesiologist and pain specialist in Edmonton.

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