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Joint pain relief

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read
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We’ve all been there – the day after a heavy workout, a twisted ankle, or an accidental bump or bruise to one of our body's many muscles or joints. Joint issues can cause a great deal of pain!

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

Doctor’s advice

The catch-all: acetaminophen

Acetaminophen 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 acetaminophen works or in which area of the brain it works, but it likely stops chemical neurotransmitters from transmitting a pain message.

It’s most effective if taken regularly and for a short period, 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 containing acetaminophen, such as cold and flu treatments, so you don’t double-dose. The liver clears it, so you should check with your doctor for any liver problems. It causes liver toxicity if taken above the recommended dose.

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

Beating inflammation: NSAIDs

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are a class of medications that work on pain and reduce inflammation. NSAIDs have a similar effect on pain as acetaminophen but can be particularly effective in joint pain and arthritis, where a muscle or joint is inflamed, causing much of the pain.

Ibuprofen and naproxen are available from any pharmacy, but stronger tablet NSAIDs such as diclofenac or indomethacin require a prescription. There is also topical diclofenac which can be purchased over the counter such as Voltaren gel.

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, a stomach ulcer, or the elderly should avoid them. If taken for several weeks or more, your doctor may prescribe a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) to reduce the risk of a stomach ulcer from forming. NSAIDs can also trigger certain types of asthma and exacerbate existing kidney disease, so they 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.

Opioids require a prescription, often combined with acetaminophen (Vicodin) or ibuprofen (Vicoprofen).

Home remedies

Before reaching for the pain medicine, we’d recommend starting with some good old-fashioned home treatment. This will be all that is needed for the majority of mild joint aches and pains. Start small by resting the painful joints. Try ice on the area to help reduce swelling and inflammation in the first few days (days 1 - 3) after an injury. Then after a day or so of rest, you can start gentle stretching exercises and starting to get the joints and muscles moving again, and introduce heat with a hot water bottle or heating pads to get the joints back to full working order after day 3. Read about when to use ice vs. heat.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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