Over the Counter Pain Medicines: The Differences and Your Choices

What’s in your medicine cabinet? If you’re like most Americans, you likely have some sort of over the counter pain medications. After hard work or during a headache, these humble little pills can be our best friends.

But with all the different brand names and types of chemicals in them, how do you know what makes each one different? Are they different at all? It turns out there is more going on below the surface of these common pain relievers. Today we’ll discuss the four primary OTC pain medications and what makes each one unique.


As the most common nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (or NSAID), aspirin is one of the most common medicines in America. Known scientifically as acetylsalicylic acid, aspirin works by removing pain-causing hormones called prostaglandins that your body generates during the healing process. Aspirin is also a mild blood thinner, which is why low doses can be used to prevent heart attacks.

That blood thinning effect means it should be used with caution, especially for hemophiliacs. It also has the tendency to upset your stomach more than other NSAIDs.


More commonly known as Tylenol, acetaminophen differs from NSAIDs in several ways. For one, it doesn’t actually reduce inflammation, making it ineffective for arthritis or sprains. Its primary appeal is that it is much easier on your stomach than NSAIDs. It’s also safer for kids.

While it is easier on your stomach, acetaminophen can take a toll on your liver if used excessively. This is why it shouldn’t be mixed with alcohol.

Naproxen Sodium

If you’ve ever taken Aleve, you’ve taken naproxen sodium, another common OTC NSAID. Naproxen sodium’s main appeal is its length: one dose remains in your system for much longer than other NSAIDs, which makes it useful for chronic pain.

Side effects are similar to other NSAIDs. Naproxen sodium does carry a higher risk of stomach ulcers, so always take it with food.


Marketed as Motrin, ibuprofen works exactly the same as aspirin: inhibiting pain-causing hormones. It also has similar side effects, but is popular because the stomach upset is not as pronounced as aspirin. This also makes it kid-friendly in smaller doses.

Do you suffer from persistent physical pain? NSAIDs and OTC medications can help relieve your symptoms, but you should consider other options for long-term relief. Physical therapy can not only alleviate your symptoms, but correct poor habits and posture that exacerbate them.

Physical Therapy Partners is a fully independent physical therapy practice with an uncompromising focus on one-on-one patient interaction. Our office in Cary is easily accessible from anywhere in the Triangle. Contact us today to learn more and schedule an appointment!