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Choosing Effective Back Pain Medications

Pain Medication Considerations

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Updated April 14, 2010

Pain is one of the most frequently reported symptoms to doctors. For back pain, medication is usually the first-line treatment. Research shows that 90% of all low back pain can be managed with acetaminophen, NSAIDs, opioids, or adjuvant medications, such as antidepressants.

Studies also reveal that no single medication reduces or eliminates pain more effectively than the others. This is true for the selection of medication classes used as a first defense (NSAIDs, Tylenol and, in some cases, mild opioids) as well as for individual drugs within classes.

Choosing a pain medication often comes down to the pros and cons of each drug, such as undesirable or desirable side effects. Different pain medications have different side effects, for example, so you'll want to pick the one that works best for you. Cost is another consideration.

Determining the best type of pain medicine for your condition could involve trial and error. You may start a medication, and find it doesn’t work, or that the side effects are just too unbearable. If this is the case, your doctor may be able to switch you to another drug in the same category.

For short-term relief of acute muscular back pain or spasm, over-the-counter NSAIDs or Tylenol and prescription muscle relaxers are effective in most cases. If you have chronic back pain, your doctor may prescribe an adjuvant medication such as an antidepressant, or a narcotic. (Narcotics are also called opioids.)

Combining pain medication with non-drug options, such as exercise or massage, also can improve long-term pain relief.

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