What are the different types of pain medication?

Jaspal R. Singh, MD
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation
Different types of pain medication are available over-the-counter (OTC) or with a doctor’s prescription. Over-the-counter pain medications include: 
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • acetaminophen (Tylenol)
Examples of pain medicine that require a prescription are:
  • stronger anti-inflammatory drugs
  • neuropathic medications
  • muscles relaxers
  • narcotics (opioids)
Examples of pain medications are:
  • Non-aspirin pain relievers -- such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) can relieve headaches and minor pain but do not reduce swelling. They are sometimes used in combination with other drugs to provide greater pain relief.
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs -- Aspirin (Anacin, Bayer), coated or buffered aspirin (Ascription, Bufferin) and aspirin with acetaminophen (Excedrin) may be used to reduce swelling and irritation as well as to relieve pain. There also are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, commonly called "N-sayeds") such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve). Anti-inflammatory drugs are used to relieve pain, inflammation and fever. There also are steroidal drugs (like cortisol and prednisone), available only by prescription, that are used to treat more serious inflammatory conditions such as chronic arthritis.
  • Opioid pain medications -- Morphine-like drugs called opioids are prescribed to treat acute pain or cancer pain. They are occasionally used for certain chronic, non-cancer pain as well.
  • Antidepressants -- These drugs were originally used only to treat depression. Studies now show, however, that they also can relieve certain pain. Available only by prescription, they often are used to help you sleep better at night.
  • Anti-seizure medicines -- These medications are used to relieve what some patients describe as "shooting" pain by decreasing abnormal painful sensations caused by damaged nerves.
  • Other medicines -- The doctor may also prescribe other types of medication that will be helpful for your specific pain problems. In addition, medications that counteract the side effects of opioids or treat the anxiety and depression associated with pain may also be prescribed.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.