The Best OTC Pain Reliever for Every Kind of Ache

Updated: Mar. 08, 2021

Did you know that the best OTC pain reliever for your throbbing headache may not be the best for soothing sore muscles after a rigorous workout? Or that what works best for a fever is not the best medication for the joint pains of arthritis? Here, how to choose the best type of medication for your specific aches and pains.

Make the right choice

When you have aches and pains, you probably have lots of choices in your medicine cabinet. But all pain relievers aren’t created equal. Some work better for headaches or back pain, while others are stronger when it comes to fever or arthritis. Don’t just reach for the closest medication. Here’s the best over-the-counter pain reliever for every kind of ache.

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The best OTC pain reliever for: Headache

Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID, that works to reduce inflammation. If you have a headache, ibuprofen is an effective treatment option, although if you are pregnant or prone to ulcers, you may want to choose another pain reliever. A 2017 study published in the journal Australian Prescriber suggests that people with a history of peptic ulcer disease, increasing age, and high-dose and long-term use of NSAIDs are at the highest risk of major gastrointestinal toxicity.  Instead, take acetaminophen, which does not reduce inflammation, but sends a message to pain receptors. (If you’re prone to headaches, avoid these foods that can make your headaches worse.)

Woman with a cold and high fever

The best OTC pain reliever for: Fever

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is the optimal pain reliever for regulating the body temperature and relieving any aches and pains that come with a fever, says Kavita Gupta, DO, medical director of the Advocare Pain Institute of South Jersey. It is also considered the safest medication for children. While acetaminophen does not cause stomach irritation, it should not be used by those who drink alcohol regularly, adds Dr. Gupta. If you are taking acetaminophen, make sure to drink more water than usual as these pain relievers can dehydrate and tax the kidneys. One more caveat: Many combination medicines—Sudafed, Excedrin, NyQuil, and Alka-Seltzer Plus, for instancecontain acetaminophen. Taking these medicines when you’re already taking acetaminophen may cause you to get more than a safe amount of the pain reliever. Avoid taking more than  4 grams of acetaminophen (two extra-strength pills four times a day) in one day. If someone is taking nonsteroidal drugs regularly for more than a week, they should take an acid blocker like omeprazole or famotidine with it to lessen the chances of a gastrointestinal complication. (Check out these hidden dangers of common over-the-counter pain relievers.)

man waking up in the morning and feeling sore back pain
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The best OTC pain reliever for: Backache

If your back hurts after heavy lifting or other physical exertion, consider naproxen (Aleve). This NSAID differs from pain relievers like ibuprofen and aspirin in that it takes longer to work, but its pain-relieving effect lasts longer, making it the better choice for deeper aches and pains, says Dr. Gupta.

You could also try an over-the-counter transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) device (Aleve Direct Therapy TENS). It works by electrical nerve stimulation that can block pain receptors and trigger your body to release endorphins, your body’s natural pain blockers. However, pregnant women and people with pacemakers or epilepsy should avoid TENS as they may experience complications, suggests a 2020 review of studies published in StatPearls. (Check out the best products for back pain to start finding relief.)

Pregnancy concept. Young pregnant woman holding hands on belly close-up.
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The best OTC pain reliever for: Menstrual cramps

To alleviate the pain of menstrual cramps most effectively, your doctor may recommend an NSAID like ibuprofen or naproxen. A review of studies published in 2019 in Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care found that NSAIDs are more effective than acetaminophen at relieving period pain. Take the pain reliever at the beginning of your period, or as soon as you feel symptoms, and continue taking the medicine as directed for two to three days, or until your symptoms are gone. If you are still in pain, speak with your doctor about other treatment options or try one of these 8 unexpected ways to alleviate cramps.

senior woman holding hand with arthritis pain
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The best OTC pain reliever for: Arthritis

Ibuprofen helps to relieve symptoms of arthritis (osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or juvenile arthritis), including  swelling, stiffness, and joint pain. “Ibuprofen stops inflammation, which is what leads to pain,” notes Dr. Gupta. It doesn’t cure arthritis, however, and will help alleviate pain only as long as you continue to take it. (Check out these 23 science-backed natural home remedies for arthritis pain relief.)

Runner leg and muscle pain during running training outdoors in summer nature. Health and fitness concept. Injured male jogger massage sore leg.
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The best OTC pain reliever for: Exercise recovery

If you experience muscle aches and pains after a tough workout, naproxen may be the best pain reliever to address them. Much like backaches, these pains require a longer-lasting treatment, says Dr. Gupta. Just be aware that the pain relievers may also cause stomach upset, so take them sparingly. (Learn what you should know about taking supplements for joint pain.)


The best OTC pain reliever for: Toothache

A review of research published in 2018 in The Journal of the American Dental Association suggests that NSAIDS—in particular, ibuprofen—offer the best balance between risks and benefits for acute dental pain, compared with opioid analgesics. Read more about home remedies for a toothache.