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5 types of pain medications

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OTC optionsPrescription optionsChoosing the right medication for youSummary
Pain can be short-term or chronic and can affect your daily life if you’re unable to manage it. For those experiencing pain, a wide range of OTC and prescription medications are available to help relieve symptoms.
Medically reviewed by Ami Patel PharmD, BCPS
Written by D. M. Pollock
Updated on November 9, 2023

There are many types of pain, and pain often affects overall well-being. Whether your pain is short and sudden, like a headache, or progressive and chronic, knowing what pain management methods work best for you can be helpful.

The type of pain relief most suitable for you may depend on whether your pain is chronic, what’s causing it, and how severe it is. OTC medication options can help with mild or temporary pain, whereas stronger pain relief medications are only available by prescription.

OTC medications

Person speaking with a doctor to depict a conversation about the types of pain medications.
Photography by Erdark/Getty Images

OTC pain-relieving medications are available to buy from pharmacies and drug stores without a prescription. There are two common types: nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen (Tylenol).


Acetaminophen (Tylenol) has many general uses, including helping reduce fever. It can also help manage minor aches and pain caused by:

  • headaches
  • the common cold
  • backache
  • menstrual cramps
  • strains and sprains
  • toothache
  • arthritis

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is available in multiple strengths, and you can use it alongside NSAIDs. To avoid liver damage, you should not use more than 4,000 milligrams (mg) of acetaminophen per day.

Acetaminophen typically has minimal side effects. However, some people may experience an upset stomach, nausea, or constipation.


NSAIDs help treat pain as well as symptoms of fever and inflammation in the body.

These drugs help manage pain caused by conditions such as:

  • headache
  • arthritis
  • menstrual cramping
  • minor injuries like sprains

Some NSAIDs that are available to buy OTC include:

When taken as the label instructs, these medications are safe. However, as with any drug, there are risks and possible side effects, such as:

  • diarrhea
  • high blood pressure
  • stomach bleed
  • kidney injury
  • heart attack
  • stroke

If you need help covering the cost of medications, the free Optum Perks Discount Card could help you save up to 80% on prescription drugs. Follow the links on drug names for savings on that medication, or search for a specific drug here.

Prescription medications

The following types of medications are typically high strength and therefore only available by prescription.


Corticosteroids are a type of medication used to treat many different conditions, from seasonal allergies to arthritis. They work to relieve pain by reducing inflammation.

They can help manage pain from a range of health conditions, such as:

  • arthritis
  • eczema
  • gout
  • lupus

Common corticosteroids include:

There are several side effects that can occur when taking oral steroid medications. These can include:

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Opioid analgesics

Opioids are powerful pain-relieving medications. A doctor may prescribe opioids for short-term pain, like after a surgical procedure. They are also useful for managing long-term pain.

They work by attaching to proteins and opioid receptors in your brain and spinal cord to block out pain signals.

The following medications are part of the opioid drug class:

It is important to know that opioids are highly addictive and can cause dependency. It is best to follow your prescribing doctor’s instructions to avoid serious side effects or overdose.

These side effects can include:

  • nausea
  • constipation
  • drowsiness
  • confusion
  • slowing breathing

Antiepileptic medications

Antiepileptic medications can help with long-term pain management for people with health conditions that cause nerve damage resulting in neuropathy. Health conditions such as shingles or diabetes can cause nerve damage.

These medications help by interfering with the transmission of pain signals from the damaged nerves. However, further research is needed to understand how these medications are effective.

Some examples of anti-seizure medications that help manage pain include:

Anticonvulsant medications can cause certain side effects, such as:

  • blurred vision
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • nausea
  • tremors

These drugs may cause an increased risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts. If this occurs, it is important to speak with a healthcare professional who can offer support and reassess your treatment options.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide or self-harm, please seek support:

While you wait for help to arrive, stay with someone and remove any weapons or substances that can cause harm. You are not alone.

How to choose the right pain medication for you

There are several different types of medications. A healthcare professional can help determine the source of your pain and work with you to develop a treatment plan specific to your needs and circumstances.

For example, if you have a history of addiction, a doctor may suggest non-opioid medications for pain relief.


Whether you experience chronic pain or acute pain, there are medications available to help you find relief.

The most suitable type of pain medication will depend on the cause, severity, and duration of the pain you are experiencing. For example, doctors often don’t prescribe opioids for long-term use due to the risk of dependency.

You can work with a doctor to find out which method of pain management is best for you.

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