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There are a bewildering array of pain relief medicines on the market to treat different types of inflammatory conditions. Some you can buy over the counter (OTC), while other stronger alternatives are prescription-only. But which one is for you, and why?

The answer is that it depends on a number of things, including the cause of pain and its severity1.

Basically, OTC meds can be used to ease pain from conditions like arthritis, headaches, muscle strains and period pain1. Prescription-only painkillers are stronger and are used for chronic pain or for short-term severe pain after trauma or surgery1.

NSAIDs are sold over the counter, which means you don’t need a prescription1. They’re mostly used for pain relief, reducing inflammation, and bringing down a high temperature. They’re good for treating headaches, painful periods, sprains and strains, colds and flu, arthritis, and other causes of long-term pain1. Some NSAIDs can be taken by mouth, while others are applied directly to your skin1,2.

NSAIDs work by preventing an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX) from making prostaglandins, one of your body’s biggest contributors to inflammation2. Examples include ibuprofen and naproxen2.

OTC ibuprofen, and naproxen are good for short-term pain relief in conditions such as headache, earache, toothache, joint or muscle pain, menstrual cramps, strains, and sprains2. At higher prescription doses, they may be used for inflammation caused by injuries or arthritis2.

Corticosteroids are drugs that mimic cortisol, a hormone that your adrenal glands produce naturally3. They’re an anti-inflammatory medicine prescribed for a broad range of conditions4. You may be given them in the form of tablets, injections into a blood vessel, joint or muscle, as a mouth or nasal spray, or as a lotion, gel or cream4. Corticosteroids are often referred to by the shorter name steroids, but don’t confuse them with the controversial male hormone-related steroids sometimes abused in the athletic world3.

They’re used to treat a wide variety of disorders, including asthma, painful and inflamed joints/muscles, skin conditions, and other conditions where inflammation must be reduced and the immune system suppressed4. If you require corticosteroids, your healthcare provider will prescribe them for as short a period as possible at the lowest effective dose4. This is because long-term use at higher doses – particularly in tablet form – can cause problems for some patients4. If you think you may be experiencing side-effects from your medication, speak to your healthcare provider.


  1. Cleveland Clinic. Staff overview. Pain Relievers. Available at
  2. Arthritis Foundation. Staff overview. NSAIDs. Available at
  3. Cleveland Clinic. Staff overview. Corticosteroids. Available at
  4. NHS inform. Staff overview. Corticosteroids. Available at