4 of the Best Over-the-Counter Back Pain Pills According to Experts

Medically reviewed by Joanna Gholmie, BS Pharm, MS
2020-05-19

Most people will experience back pain in their lives. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, low back pain is “the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work days.”

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications – such as Advil and Aleve – are popular choices when dealing with back pain. But with so many choices available on the market, it can be hard to decipher which might be the best fit for you.

Here at Goodpath, we can help. All of the products we suggest have been reviewed for safety and effectiveness by our expert medical team. After completing a short assessment, we create an integrative treatment plan personalized for you and your needs.

Here are the some of the best OTC back pain pills available on the market, according to experts:

  • All-day relief: Aleve Back & Muscle Pain tablets

  • Fast-acting: Advil Liqui-Gels

  • Arthritis relief: Tylenol Regular Strength

  • Nighttime relief: Motrin PM

For All-Day Relief: Aleve Back & Muscle Pain

Works for: Twelve hours

Dosage: 220 mg naproxen sodium

Why experts recommend it:

The formula is designed specifically for back and muscle pain. One tablet lasts for up to 12 hours – a great option for those who suffer with chronic, all-day pain. 

How it works:

Aleve is a type of non-steroidal anti inflammatory drug, or NSAID. They work by limiting the overproduction of chemicals called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are responsible for creating inflammation, pain, and fever. The generic names for two common OTC NSAIDs are ibuprofen and naproxen sodium.

How to use Aleve Back & Muscle Pain tablets:

  • Use as directed on the label or as instructed by your doctor.

  • Do not take more than three tablets in 24 hours.

  • If NSAIDs cause you to have an upset stomach, take with food.

  • Aleve (naproxen sodium) is not meant for long-term use – it can be used for up to ten days.

For Fast Relief: Advil Liqui-Gels

Works for: Six to eight hours 

Dosage: 200 mg ibuprofen capsules

Why experts recommend it:

The solubilized ibuprofen in the capsules is more easily absorbed into the bloodstream, providing faster onset of action. This leads to faster relief. It also has no taste, which makes it easier to swallow. 

How it works:

Advil Liqui-Gels contain ibuprofen, another NSAID. Ibuprofen’s effects do not last as long as naproxen sodium (Aleve). However, it may be less harsh on the gastrointestinal system. A study in 2016 concluded that liquid gels may provide faster pain relief than tablets.

How to use Advil Liqui-Gels: 

  • Use as directed on the label or as instructed by your doctor.

  • Do not exceed six capsules in 24 hours unless instructed by a doctor.

  • If NSAIDs cause you to have an upset stomach, take with food.

General precautions about NSAIDs (ibuprofen and naproxen sodium):

NSAIDs can increase the chance of serious gastrointestinal complications such as ulcers, bleeding, inflammation, and perforations. People who take NSAIDs (other than aspirin) such as naproxen and ibuprofen, may have a higher risk of having a heart attack or a stroke than people who do not take these medications. People with kidney disease, or those who have had coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery, should not take NSAIDS.

NSAID side effects:

Ask a medical professional if you have any specific questions about this medication, and before taking NSAIDS.

Common, mild side effects of NSAIDs:

  • Gas

  • Bloating

  • Heartburn

  • Abdominal pain

Call your doctor if these symptoms appear for more than a few days or worsen with time.

More severe side effects of NSAIDs:

If you have any of the following complications, it is crucial to seek medical attention or call your doctor right away. These include but are not limited to:

  • Severe abdominal pain

  • Any signs of bleeding, such as bloody or red-dark stools, blood in urine, vomiting blood or vomit that looks like coffee grounds, abnormal bloody vaginal discharge, bleeding gums, or any other persistent abnormal bleeding

  • Swelling of the mouth, face, lips, tongue, ankles, feet, lower legs, hands, or eye area

  • Blurred vision

  • Yellowing of the skin or whites of eyes (jaundice) 

  • Chest pain 

  • Red or irritated eyes

  • Skin abnormalities such as red, very dry, blistered, painful, or peeling skin (with or without fever)

For Osteoarthritis Relief: Tylenol Regular Strength

Works for: Four to six hours

Dosage: 325 mg acetaminophen

Why experts recommend it:

Tylenol is a good alternative for those who have any underlying conditions in which an NSAID would not be appropriate. It is an effective pain reliever with fewer side effects than NSAIDS.

There are also stronger formulations, such as extra-strength Tylenol specifically designed for arthritis relief. The high-dose form has a greater risk of side effects and serious complications.

How it works:

Acetaminophen is an analgesic, also known as a general pain reliever. It is not anti-inflammatory, unlike NSAIDs. Acetaminophen works by changing how our bodies sense pain.  

 How to use Tylenol Regular Strength:

  • Use as directed on the label or as instructed by your doctor.

  • Do not take more than ten tablets in a 24-hour period, unless told by a doctor.

  • Not recommended for use for over ten days unless directed by a doctor.

Precautions about Tylenol:

Acetaminophen can cause liver damage with high, frequent, or long-term dosing. Do not take acetaminophen if you:

  • Have a history of liver disease

  • Drink more than three alcoholic beverages per day

  • Are allergic to acetaminophen or any other of the ingredients listed

  • If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, ask a medical professional before using acetaminophen 

  • Are taking any other medication containing acetaminophen in combination with other active ingredients, due to the risk of ingesting more than the recommended daily amount. This may cause acute liver failure, which may lead to liver transplant and/or death.

Common side effects of acetaminophen:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Abdominal pain

  • Loss of appetite

  • Headache

If you have any of the following side effects, it is crucial to seek medical attention or call your doctor right away. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Itching/swelling (especially of the tongue or throat)

  • Severe dizziness

  • Trouble breathing

For Nighttime Relief: Motrin PM

Works for: Eight to 12 hours

Dosage: 200 mg ibuprofen and 38 mg diphenhydramine citrate

Why experts recommend it:

The two active ingredients in Motrin PM relieve pain  and help with sleep problems when you can’t sleep well due to pain. 

How it works:

Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine used to help relieve allergy symptoms. Some types of antihistamines can cause drowsiness, which helps a person sleep better or fall asleep faster.

How to use Motrin PM:

  • Use as directed on the label or as instructed by your doctor.

  • If NSAIDs cause you to have an upset stomach, take with food.

Precautions about Motrin PM:

  • Do not take Motrin PM for longer than ten days unless instructed by your doctor.

  • People who take NSAIDs (other than aspirin) may have a higher risk of having a heart attack or a stroke than people who do not take these medications 

  • Do not operate any moving vehicle or heavy machinery after taking Motrin PM, as this may lead to a higher risk of accidents due to drowsiness and inability to remain focused

  • For people above 65 years of age, do not take before consulting with your doctor, as Motrin PM might increase the risk of falls, injuries, and fractures

Common side effects of Motrin PM: 

  • Nausea

  • Sleepiness

  • Loss of appetite

  • Increased chest congestion

More serious side effects of Motrin PM:

  • Dizziness

  • Loss of hearing

  • Blurred vision

How Goodpath Can Help

OTC pills, tablets, and capsules are a good fit for some people but not for others. There are many factors that come into play when deciding which type of medication may be best to help with a person’s pain.

At Goodpath, we understand the importance of personalized medicine. Take our quick assessment now. In three to four minutes, it creates an integrative treatment plan specifically designed for you and your needs.