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Muscle pain relief

Written by Healthwords's team of doctors and pharmacists based in UK | Updated: 25.04.2023 | 3 min read

We’ve all been there – the day after a heavy workout, a twisted ankle or an accidental bang or bruise to one of the many muscles in our body. Muscles and the pain they produce can cause a great deal of pain!

Here at Caidr we have recommendations for a sensible pain relief ladder to follow, along with some top tips to soothe those painful symptoms.

The catch-all: paracetamol

Paracetamol is usually a safe and sensible place to start when reaching for pain relief, with relatively few risks or side effects if taken as instructed. It’s well-tolerated and may be sufficient for occasional mild pain that occurs for just a brief time. For a drug that’s been around for more than 100 years, it’s not well understood how paracetamol works or which area of the brain it works on, but it likely stops chemical neurotransmitters from transmitting a pain message.

It’s most effective if taken regularly, and for a short period of time, up to a few days. It’s preferred over ibuprofen as it’s considered safer, but they offer a similar level of pain relief.

You should be careful to take no more than the recommended maximum, and beware of other products that might contain paracetamol such as cold and flu treatments, so you don’t double-dose. It’s cleared by the liver, so if you have any liver problems, you should check with a doctor first. It causes liver toxicity if taken above the recommended dose.

Rarely people may experience stomach upset, a rash or blood disorders. You don’t need a prescription for paracetamol, it’s available to buy from any pharmacy. But you should consult your doctor if you’re taking it for more than a couple of weeks, or needing to turn to it very often.

Beating inflammation: NSAIDs

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are a class of medications that work on pain and dampen down inflammation. Ibuprofen has a similar effect on pain as paracetamol, but can be particularly effective in cases such as muscle pain, where a muscle gets inflamed, causing much of the pain.

Ibuprofen is available to buy from any pharmacy, but stronger tablet NSAIDs such as naproxen, diclofenac or indometacin need a prescription. There are also topical NSAIDs which can be purchased over-the-counter such as Voltarol (containing diclofenac).

NSAIDs can cause increased acid production in the stomach, causing some discomfort, so you should always take them with food. Because of this, they carry the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding, which means those with a history of bleeding or a stomach ulcer, or the elderly, should avoid them. If taking for several weeks or more, your doctor may prescribe a proton pump inhibitor, to reduce the risk of a stomach ulcer forming. NSAIDs can also trigger certain types of asthma and can exacerbate existing kidney disease, so should be avoided in these cases.

Targeting severe pain: opioids

Opioids include a wide-ranging scope of pain relief, from codeine at the mildest end, to tramadol as a medium strength, and different forms of morphine at the strongest end. Side effects become more pronounced with stronger doses – commonly constipation, drowsiness and feeling dizzy, sick or slightly out of it. Certain people seem more susceptible to this “wooziness” than others.

You can buy a low dose of codeine phosphate or dihydrocodeine (they are very similar drugs) in the pharmacy, and it’s often combined with paracetamol (co-codamol), but higher doses are only available on prescription.

If you are needing stronger painkillers than co-codamol, you should probably be seeing your doctor about your muscle pain. It may need to be assessed to see if there is another underlying cause.

Home remedies

Before reaching for the tablets and creams, we’d recommend starting with some good old fashioned home treatment. For the majority of mild muscle aches and pains, this will be all that is needed. Start small by resting the painful muscles. Try ice on the area to help reduce swelling and inflammation in the first two or three days after an injury. Then after a day or so of rest, you can start gentle stretching exercises to get the muscles moving again. Massage with an oil or cream can be beneficial – even better if you can convince a loved one to do it. Heat can be soothing and healing for aching muscles – you can try a hot water bottle or heat pads – to get the muscles back to full working order after the third or fourth day.

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