Over-the-counter Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs for Spine Pain

NSAIDs work 2 ways to help reduce back and neck pain.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs—or NSAIDs—are among the most effective and frequently used first-line treatments for back and neck pain. Because they reduce pain and inflammation, your doctor may recommend you try an NSAID before moving on to stronger medications or therapies. NSAIDs belong to a large class of drugs called analgesics. Analgesics vary greatly, but the one thing they have in common is they reduce pain.

NSAIDs are available over-the-counter (OTC) and by prescription. This article focuses on OTC, or non-prescription, types. You can read about stronger NSAIDs in our article about prescription NSAIDs.
cash register in foreground, in drug stroreNSAIDs are available over-the-counter and by prescription. Photo Source: 123RF.com.NSAIDs can help ease pain and inflammation associated with a full spectrum of spinal conditions, from low back sprain and herniated discs to osteoporosis and spondylosis. Below are examples of OTC NSAIDs (generic names are listed first, and brand name examples are in parentheses):

  • Aspirin (Ecotrin)
  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • Naproxen (Aleve)

NSAIDs’ Strengths and Weaknesses

NSAIDs’ greatest strength is its dual power of reducing both pain and inflammation. Because of that, many people opt for an NSAID over the other type of widely available OTC medication for back and neck pain: acetaminophen (which only relieves pain, not inflammation).

But, NSAIDs are not perfect medicines. They carry the risk of causing stomach and gastrointestinal problems in some people.

Additionally, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning that non-aspirin NSAIDs increase the chance of a heart attack or stroke. Also, a small number of people may experience elevated blood pressure and kidney function problems because of an NSAID. You can read more about these risks in NSAIDs for Neck or Back Pain: Helpful or Harmful to You?

If you’re concerned that you may be at risk to these potential complications, talk to your doctor.

Safely Using NSAIDs for Spine Pain

Many people assume that medications are completely safe if they are available without a prescription. While OTC drugs generally have fewer risks than their prescription counterparts, any medicine can be toxic when used inappropriately.

The following tips will help you get the most benefit from an OTC NSAID:

  • Before taking an OTC NSAID, talk to your doctor about all the drugs and supplements (eg, vitamins, herbal remedies) you are taking (including those without a prescription).
  • Follow the recommended dosage on the drug package.
  • Take advantage of your pharmacist’s knowledge. Ask him or her about safely using an OTC NSAID, and what red flags you should look out for when using this drug.
  • If you experience any side effects after you start taking this medication, immediately call your doctor or pharmacist.

Overall, OTC NSAIDs are widely accepted as a safe and effective treatment for many types of back and neck pain. These medicines may also help you better engage with other spine health treatments, such as exercise and physical therapy. If you find that over-the-counter NSAIDs are not relieving your pain, talk to your doctor. He or she may prescribe you a prescription NSAID to improve your function and reduce your pain.

Updated on: 11/14/19
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