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What types of painkillers are there?

Most pain-relieving medications fall into one of the following groups:

  • Non-opioid analgesics – e.g. paracetamol (widely available over the counter from pharmacies and supermarkets)
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – e.g. aspirinibuprofen (widely available over the counter); naproxen, diclofenac (only available on prescription)
  • Compound analgesics – e.g. co-codamol, which combines paracetamol with a dose of an opioid analgesic such as codeine (compounds containing lower doses of codeine are available over the counter from pharmacies)
  • Opioid analgesics – e.g. codeine, tramadol, morphine (only available on prescription).

Usually, your doctor will suggest you try non-opioid analgesics and/or NSAIDs first. If these don't help, or if you sometimes need stronger pain medications, then compound analgesics will usually be the next step for moderate pain, followed by opioid analgesics for very severe pain. The reason for this approach is that the stronger medications tend to have more side-effects and can sometimes cause dependency.

The drugs covered in these pages will help with the symptoms of pain and/or inflammation but won’t cure arthritis or other long-term pain conditions. Depending on the condition you have, you may need other drugs alongside your pain relief medications to control the disease itself.

You don't need to wait until your pain is severe to use painkillers. Analgesics often won't be as effective as they could be if you don't take them soon enough or often enough. Follow the instructions your doctor gives you or the instructions on the packet.

You can also take painkillers before you exercise so you can carry on without too much discomfort.

What are approved and brand names?

Painkillers may be available under several different names. Each drug has an approved name but manufacturers often give drugs their own brand name too.

Examples of approved and brand names

Approved name
Brand name
Paracetamol Panadol
Ibuprofen
Nurofen

The approved name should always be on the pharmacist's label even if a brand name appears on the packaging, but check with your healthcare professional if you’re not sure. We'll use the approved names in the sections that follow.

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