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Pain medications: Everything you need to know

Dr. Alexandra Phelan: General Practictioner | minute read

Whether you’re in pain for a short while or have a condition where you need to manage pain daily, there’s a pain medication that can help. In this article, we look at the different pain medicines available and which one could be best for you.

Pain medication terminology

When we talk about pain medication, there are other words that describe the same thing. For example, other words for pain medication include analgesics, narcotics, painkillers or simply pain medicine. These all help give you pain relief so you can get back to what really matters – enjoying life!

Pain medication groups

We can group pain medications into 2 different types:

  • Over-the-counter pain medications
    Over the counter medicines are the type you get at a pharmacy, with advice from a pharmacist. And in this case, over the counter pain medications include aspirin, paracetamol, ibuprofen, codeine and naproxen.

  • Pain medications under prescription

    Pain medications that need a prescription from a doctor are normally stronger than over the counter pain medications. This also means a doctor needs to check that they’re right for you before you can take them. Prescription pain medications include higher strength codeine and naproxen, as well as amitriptyline, gabapentin and morphine.

What are NSAIDs?

NSAID is short for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory and it’s a type of pain medication. For example, ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin are NSAIDs. This helps get rid of inflammation (swelling) without the need for ice and provide pain relief.

To protect your stomach you’ll need to have food before you take an NSAID pain medication. And it’s even better for your stomach to take a stomach protection medication first. Stomach protection medications include omeprazole or lansoprazole. You’ll normally take one tablet daily, first thing in the morning, before any food or other medication.

If you’re going to need to take NSAIDs daily, find out more about the difference between omeprazole and lansoprazole.

You should also know that it’s not a good idea to take more than one type of NSAID at the same time. Even if you’re taking a stomach protection medication! And if you do get any stomach pain after taking an NSAID, you’ll need to see a doctor straight away.

Pain medicines and their groups

You can get over-the-counter pain medications at a pharmacy, including aspirin, codeine, ibuprofen, naproxen and paracetamol.

A pharmacist will give you advice on the pain medication that’s right for you. They might give you advice like:

  • The best time to take your pain medication

  • How to take your pain medication

  • Any side effects you need to know about

Other pain medicines require a prescription from your doctor.

We've outlined common pain medicines below and explain what group they fall under.


Amitriptyline is a pain medication that a doctor can prescribe to help you treat nerve pain or back pain.

Your doctor will tell you how much amitriptyline you need to take so that it’s most effective for you. Normally, you’ll start with one amitriptyline 10mg tablet once a day at night. This is because it might make you feel sleepy after you take it.

You’ll need to take amitriptyline every day without taking a break, even if you’re not in pain. And that’s because amitriptyline might take a few days to start working, as it takes time to build up in your body. You’ll need to speak to your doctor if you want to stop taking it.

Although, once you stop taking amitriptyline, your pain may slowly come back. Your doctor will then have a look at alternative pain medications you can try next.


Aspirin is one of the first NSAID pain medications ever discovered and we still use it today. You can use aspirin to treat different types of pain, such as toothache, headache, muscle pain or joint pain.

To be safe, you should only take aspirin if you’re over 16 years old. Aspirin is available over the counter at any pharmacy, as well as on the shelf at a supermarket or corner shop.

When you want to take aspirin, you’ll need to have food first to protect your stomach. And you can take aspirin in 3 different ways. You can either swallow a tablet, chew a tablet or dissolve a tablet in water and then drink the mixture.

For pain relief, you take one 300mg aspirin tablet with water. You can take up to 2 aspirin 300mg tablets at the same time if you want extra pain relief. You’ll need to wait 4 hours if you want to take more. And the maximum you can have is 8 aspirin tablets in one day.


Codeine is a pain medication that you can get over the counter with paracetamol or ibuprofen in the same tablet. For example, co-codamol tablets like Solpadeine contain paracetamol and codeine. And Nurofen Plus is codeine with ibuprofen.

To get codeine tablets on their own, you’ll need a prescription from a doctor. You should follow your doctor’s instructions on how to take your codeine tablets. The dose you normally start with is one 15mg codeine tablet up to 4 times per day. And you’ll need to leave around 4 hours between each time you take a codeine tablet.

Codeine is safe to take with most other medications, but it can be addictive. After you take a codeine tablet, you might get side effects. These include feeling sleepy, nauseous or constipated.


Your doctor may prescribe gabapentin if you’ve got long term nerve pain and it’s affecting your daily life.

To start with, you’ll take a low dose such as one 300mg gabapentin tablet each day. Then you’ll build up how much you take over a few days until you are taking 3 tablets a day. Gabapentin can make you feel sleepy or tired, but this should wear off as you get used to it.

Your doctor will normally give you gabapentin to go along with your other pain medication. Once you start taking gabapentin, you shouldn’t stop unless your doctor tells you to.


Ibuprofen is an over-the-counter pain medication and it’s also an NSAID. This means ibuprofen can help reduce pain, as well as any swelling or inflammation. Ibuprofen is helpful for most types of aches and pains, such as a sprained ankle or period pain.

If you have asthma or diabetes, ibuprofen might not be suitable for you. Speak to a pharmacist or your doctor to find out if ibuprofen is right for you.

You can get ibuprofen as 200mg or 400mg tablets, and you’ll need to eat before you can take any. There are chewable ibuprofen tablets and ones that you can swallow.

To take ibuprofen, you chew or swallow one 400mg tablet up to 3 times per day. Or you can take 1 or 2 ibuprofen 200mg tablets instead or one 400mg tablet.

If you’re still in pain, you can take paracetamol at the same time as ibuprofen if you need to. But you should not take ibuprofen at the same time as other NSAIDs, like aspirin or naproxen.


If you’ve tried a lot of painkillers and they’re not working, morphine might be the next step. Your doctor will need to check if you have any allergies or other health conditions first. For example, morphine might not be right for you if you have breathing problems.

There are different ways you can take morphine and it depends on what works best for you. For example, you can take morphine tablets that give you pain relief straight away for intense or sudden pain. Or you can take a morphine tablet that slowly releases a small amount of medication every few hours. This is so you get pain relief for a longer period of time.

Morphine liquid is available if you find it difficult to swallow tablets. If you can’t swallow at all, or you’re likely to forget to take tablets, you can try morphine patches. These are also ideal if the pain you’re experiencing is constant and unpleasant.

However, your doctor can only give you one month of morphine at a time. When you want to stop using morphine, you’ll need to come off it slowly to avoid side effects.

Morphine can be addictive and cause side effects such as drowsiness, feeling sick or constipation.


Naproxen is an NSAID pain medication, like ibuprofen or aspirin. It’s a good alternative if you have a sensitive stomach. You can get a small pack of naproxen 250mg tablets over the counter from a pharmacy.

If you use naproxen for a few days but the pain doesn’t go away, you’ll need to see a doctor to get more tablets. Your doctor can prescribe more 250mg tablets or offer you higher strength 500mg naproxen tablets.

You’ll need to have food before you take a naproxen tablet. You can take one tablet of either 250mg or 500mg naproxen, up to 3 times a day. But you shouldn’t take naproxen at the same time as aspirin or ibuprofen, as it might hurt your stomach.

You can read more about the uses and side effects of naproxen to see if it’s right for you.


Paracetamol is a pain medication you can take for all kinds of mild pain, like a slight headache. Paracetamol is also the only pain medication that pregnant women can take safely. You might not be able to take paracetamol if you’ve got a health condition that affects your liver.

Paracetamol is available over the counter from pharmacies, and in supermarkets or corner shops in small quantities.

You can take paracetamol on an empty stomach, so there’s no need to consume food before you take it. When you feel pain, you should take 2 paracetamol 500mg tablets with a full glass of water. You can do this up to 4 times per day as an adult. And if paracetamol is not helping on its own, you can take another type of painkiller. For example, you could have some food and then take some ibuprofen or aspirin on top for extra pain relief.

You shouldn’t take more than 8 paracetamol 500mg tablets in 24 hours. Remember, if you need help with pain relief, see a doctor at your GP practice for advice.

Pain medication advice

Speak to a GP if you need advice on pain medication, and they’ll help you choose the best one for you. Your GP may also talk you through prescription pain medication options if you’ve exhausted other pain management techniques.