Medically Approved

Pain medications: The Optum Perks Guide

Man rubbing his shoulder after a workout

We have all experienced pain at some point, whether acute or chronic. We’ll look at the many ways pain can be treated so that you can feel better and get on with your daily routine.

Elizabeth Millard

By Elizabeth Millard

Table of Contents

  1. What causes pain?
  2. What’s the difference between acute and chronic pain?
  3. How does pain medication work?
  4. What forms do pain medications come in?
  5. What are the most common prescription-strength pain relievers?
  6. What over-the-counter options are there for reducing pain?
  7. How are gels and creams used for pain?
  8. When should I see a doctor for pain?
  9. What are the most common side effects of pain medication?
  10. How do I choose the right pain medication?
  11. What are ways to reduce pain without medication?

Most people deal with pain at some point. It could be temporary pain from an injury or surgery. Or maybe it’s chronic, or lingering for weeks, years or even a lifetime.

In fact, pain is the most common reason people seek medical care. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20% of U.S. adults have chronic pain. And more than a third of them have a painful condition that limits their ability to work and enjoy their favorite activities.

No pain is pleasant. But chronic pain in particular has been linked to a reduced quality of life, more medical costs and fewer chances to connect with friends and family. These factors can have a ripple effect on overall health. Thankfully, there are effective pain management treatments that can help.

For many, that treatment involves pain medication. Here’s what you need to know about your options, including non-medication remedies.

(Are your prescription medication costs adding up? Use our free prescription discount card each time you go to the pharmacy. You could save up to 80%.)

What causes pain?

Most of us know pain as an uncomfortable feeling. It can range from mild, such as a dull headache, to excruciating, such as passing a kidney stone.

You feel pain because of your nervous system. When you’re sick or injured, your body sends messages to the brain through nerve cells in the skin, muscles, joints and organs. Pain tells you that something is wrong.

What’s the difference between acute and chronic pain?

There are 2 main types of pain: acute and chronic. Acute pain usually comes on suddenly and goes away once the issue is resolved. It can happen when you cut yourself, break a bone, go through childbirth or are healing from a recent surgery. You may have tissue damage or inflammation that’s trying to repair itself.

Chronic pain sticks around for months or even years. Some ongoing causes of pain can include arthritis, cancer or nerve pain. Injuries that don’t heal properly can lead to chronic pain, too. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, chronic low-back pain is one of the most significant health problems in the U.S.

How does pain medication work?

The goal of pain medication is to reduce or block the pain messages that are sent to your brain. As long as the medication is in your system, your pain may go away or become less severe.

The cause of the pain may still be happening. But medication allows you to better manage your pain and live a full life.

What forms do pain medications come in?

Pain medication comes in several forms. Each works in a slightly different way to help you manage pain. Some are taken by mouth. Others come as creams and gels that can be applied to your skin. Topical treatments are often used for pain in a specific spot on the body, such as a muscle or joint.

Your treatment could also include injections or intravenous (IV) medications, says Danielle Plummer, PharmD, of HG Pharmacist in Las Vegas. For example, people with joint pain sometimes have medications injected directly into that site. If you’re undergoing cancer care, you’ll likely get pain medications through an IV while under medical supervision.

What are the most common prescription-strength pain relievers?

In general, prescription-strength pain relievers are more powerful than over-the-counter (OTC) versions. Your doctor may also prescribe pain medication to make sure you get the right dose at the right time.

For severe pain, the most common class of medications prescribed is opioids, says Daniel Breisch, PharmD, of Mountain View Pharmacy in Bountiful, Utah. These include:

  • Norco®, which is a combination of hydrocodone and acetaminophen
  • Percocet®, which is a combination of oxycodone and acetaminophen
  • Tramadol, which is classified as a synthetic opioid

Recommended reading: Here’s what to expect when taking hydrocodone.

Because opioids can be highly addictive, Breisch says there’s been a drastic drop in the amount prescribed. Instead, many providers are turning to non-opioid prescription medications that include:

What OTC options are there for reducing pain?

Some of these medications are available without a prescription. These OTC versions usually come in a lower dosage. You can find most of them at your local drugstore or on the Optum Store.

Breisch says the most popular are:

In fact, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that both NSAIDs and acetaminophen may provide similar pain relief to that of opioids — with fewer risks.

How are gels and creams used for pain?

These treatments allow you to target the specific area where your pain is. This lessens the potential side effects of oral medications, says Breisch.

Different gels and creams also treat different kinds of pain, adds Breisch. For example, a topical anti-inflammatory cream likely won’t help nerve-related foot pain. They also seem to work well for some and not at all for others, he adds. So it may take some trial and error before you find a product that works best for you.

Pharmacist wearing a head scarf organizing medication
Save up to 80% on your medications

Get free coupons from Optum Perks — accepted at pharmacies nationwide.

Common main ingredients used in topical gels and creams include:

  • Menthol. This is meant to offer a cooling sensation for inflamed joints and muscles.
  • Capsaicin. This is a compound first derived from hot chili peppers. It’s used for warming an area and can help relax muscle tension.
  • Diclofenac. Gels and creams with this ingredient are meant to lower inflammation.

In many patches, the active ingredient is lidocaine. This is an anesthetic that blocks the transmission of nerve messages. This numbs pain on the skin and surrounding tissue.

The main downside to topical treatments? You typically have to apply them several times a day, says Breisch. “This can definitely be a deterrent for a lot of people as it’s difficult to find time throughout the day to apply a gel, cream or patch.”

When should I see a doctor for pain?

If you’ve tried OTC remedies and your pain is still getting worse, check in with your provider. Another key check-in time: if you’re increasing the dosage or frequency of painkillers.

Even if your pain isn’t worsening but is still steady, talk to a doctor if it’s impacting your quality of life.

What are the most common side effects of pain medication?

All medications can have risks and side effects, whether OTC or prescription. Plummer says these are the most common side effects of OTC medications: 

  • Acetaminophen can cause liver damage at doses higher than 4,000 mg every 24 hours, or 3,000 mg every 24 hours when used long term.
  • NSAIDs can increase blood pressure and may work against some blood pressure medications. They can also damage the esophagus and digestive tract if taken in high doses over a longer period.
  • Gabapentin can cause drowsiness. (Here’s what else to expect when taking gabapentin.) 
  • Topical pain relievers, particularly those containing capsaicin, may cause irritation where you apply it.

“It’s good practice to check your pain medication to make sure you know how much you should be taking,” says Breisch. That’s particularly important if there’s risk of “double dosing.” For example, acetaminophen might already be in your prescription pain reliever. So taking a medication such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) at the same time would likely increase your dose beyond the recommended limit.

“Make sure to tell your provider if you’re taking any OTC medications so they can treat you accordingly,” Breisch adds.

Some pain medications, however, can come with more serious risks — namely, opioids.

“With opioids, the more you take, the more you can become dependent on them. This means you’ll need more over time to feel the same effect,” says Plummer.

That not only can increase your chances of addiction, but it can also make the side effects more intense. Common opioid side effects include mental fog, nausea and constipation. Opioids may also cause slowed breathing. This can lead to a fatal overdose if not treated immediately.

How do I choose the right pain medication?

With so many options, it might feel overwhelming to know what kind of pain medication is right for you. Here are some factors that can help you and your health care team decide:

The type of pain you have. For example, do you feel pain in the muscle, or is it caused by nerve damage? Does the pain come and go in a sharp way, or is it a dull ache that might be addressed by an OTC remedy? On a scale of 1 to 10, how intense is your pain? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you talk to your health provider about how the pain is affecting you.

  • The location of the pain. If the pain is in a small area, a topical remedy may be a good first step before moving on to oral medications.
  • Cost and insurance coverage. Talk to your provider or pharmacist about options that will lower your out-of-pocket payments.
  • Potential interactions. These include drug-drug and drug-disease interactions. For example, someone with a kidney disorder or digestive issues may not want to take NSAIDs, says Plummer. (Here’s how to find pain relief if you can’t take NSAIDs.)
  • Your health history. If you have struggled with drug or alcohol abuse, let your provider know. It will help them understand your risks for pain medicines that are potentially addictive.

“When searching for the right pain medication, it’s always important to find the root of the problem,” suggests Breisch. “Consider talking with your provider to determine the cause to know what type of therapy is best for you.”

What are ways to reduce pain without medication?

You have several non-medication options for pain management, according to the National Library of Medicine. These may include:

  • Acupuncture or acupressure. Whether done with thin needles (acupuncture) or pressing certain points on the body (acupressure), research suggests that these methods may help manage certain pain conditions.
  • Biofeedback. This technique uses electrical sensors that are connected to your body to measure functions such as breathing, heart rate and muscle tension. The feedback allows you to make changes in your body, such as relaxing muscles, to give you more control over your pain.
  • Massage therapy. When soft tissues of the body are relaxed, it often reduces stress and pain. Massage can alleviate tension and lead to more relaxation. (Massage therapy can be expensive. Here’s how to make it more affordable.)
  • Mindfulness or meditation. This mind-body practice helps minimize distractions and stress, which can have an effect on pain.
  • Physical therapy. Techniques in physical therapy include heat, cold, movement and massage, all of which can condition muscles in a way that can ease pain.
  • Psychotherapy. Emotional distress can cause stress and pain signals in the body to worsen. And therapy can help you manage those hard feelings. For more, read our how-to therapy guide.

“Pain should never be treated with medications alone,” says Plummer. A mix of approaches can help you live as pain-free as possible and feel good in your body. Remember: Use the Optum Perks mobile app to find prescription medication coupons and discounts in your area.


Additional sources
Chronic pain statistics: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Chronic pain: Johns Hopkins Medicine
How over-the-counter pain relievers compare to opioids: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Non-medication options for pain management: National Library of Medicine