OTC Pain Relievers...Is there a Better Alternative?


Do you find yourself reaching for that bottle of Advil or Aleve when you’re feeling tired and sore?  I’ve observed that this a habit for many people.  As athletes we don’t want to miss any training,  and this mindset makes it very easy to slide into the routine of taking OTC (over the counter) pain relievers.  This temporary relief allows us to get out the door and get our workouts in.  I’ve also noticed that as we age it’s even more common to become reliant on OTC pain relievers.  They make it possible for us to keep doing the activities that we’ve always enjoyed doing.  However, is it ok to take OTC pain relievers every day?  What are the risks and long term effects?  Are there better ways to manage inflammation?

The two main types of OTC pain relievers are NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) and acetaminophen.  NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Advil), aspirin and naproxen (Aleve).  They work by blocking the body’s production of chemicals known as prostaglandins that cause inflammation and pain.  Common side effects for all NSAIDs are cardiovascular problems, GI bleeding, kidney problems, and hypertension.  Serious side effects include gastrointestinal ulcers and bleeding but fortunately these seem to be limited to high doses taken for longer periods of time.  However, taking these medications long term can be tempting since we can buy them right off the shelf - no prescription needed.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol, Paracetamol) is often used to ease pain and reduce fever, but it does not reduce inflammation.  Acetaminophen can be toxic to your liver, even at recommended doses.  Research has shown that taking just slightly more than the recommended dose over a longer time period is far more risky than one large overdose.  Another concern to be aware of is that acetaminophen has been linked to increased risk of kidney damage when taken with alcohol.  (So NEVER take it as a cure for a hangover!)

Most of us have taken the occasional OTC pain killer to manage an acute situation.  Sometimes we need quick relief from an intense pain such as a headache, toothache or menstrual cramps.  Other times we may be dealing with a sports injury that we’re trying to manage.  When this occurs right before a big race or event that we’ve put a lot of time and effort into we want to get though it if at all possible. I had this experience at the 2008 Olympics.  My plantar fascia flared up as soon as I hit the ground in Beijing. In addition to lots of manual therapy I was taking lots of anti-inflammatory meds so that I could manage the pain and compete in the 5000m prelims and final.  However, once I stepped off the track after the 5000m final I was done with the pain relievers.  Similarly, if we’re experiencing acute pain once we have it under control it’s time to get off of the pain relievers and get to the root of the problem. Taking OTC pain relievers as a band aid isn’t a good long term solution.  While no one wants to be sidelined from doing what they love, we need to think about our overall health and wellness first.  

Here is a list of natural options that can help manage inflammation:


Turmeric has been used for thousands of years in other cultures as a spice and medicinal herb and the west has now caught on!  The dried root of the Curcuma longa plant is ground into the distinctive yellow turmeric powder.  The main active substance in turmeric is curcumin.  Curcumin is a very strong antioxidant and has powerful anti-inflammatory effects.  Many studies have shown that turmeric benefits equal that of many pharmaceutical medications.  Several have even found that using curcumin is more beneficial than some prescription drugs without the toxic side effects.  Research suggests that turmeric may be helpful in treating inflammatory bowel diseases, joint pain relief, rheumatoid arthritis,  and reduced joint swelling among others.  One thing to note is that turmeric doesn’t absorb easily into the bloodstream, but if taken with black pepper the absorption rate increases by about 2000%.  If you take it in supplement form, look for one formulated with black pepper (piperine).


Ginger and turmeric belong to the same botanical family, Zingiberacea.  Ginger contains gingerol, a compound with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that has been linked to many health benefits.  A University of Miami study concluded that ginger extract could one day be a substitute to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).  Research also shows that ginger affects some inflammatory processes at a cellular level.  It's also well known for being a digestive aid.  It’s easy to add some fresh ginger into your diet!  


Cinnamon is another spice that’s easy to work into your daily routine.  It’s delicious in many teas, breakfast foods, and healthy snacks.  Cinnamon contains many compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce the likelihood of cellular damage and chronic disease.  It’s also known to be great blood sugar stabilizer in addition to it’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties.  In the US there are two types of cinnamon that are commonly found - cassia and ceylon.  Ceylon may cost a bit more but is the better option for your health.  


Astaxanthin is one of the strongest carotenoids and antioxidants found in nature.  It's derived from Haematococcus microalgae, and is the pigment that gives krill, algae, and salmon their bright red-orange color.  It has antioxidant properties that help protect against many types of chronic disease.  It’s ability to fight free radicals has been shown to be 6,000 times higher than vitamin C!  Astaxanthin fights chronic inflammation and may even improve your workout endurance.  An additional benefit is that it helps protect your skin from UV sun damage.  One big difference that sets it apart from other carotenoids is that it can handle multiple free radicals simultaneously.  While you can get astaxanthin from some seafood such as salmon and lobster, it may be easier to take in supplement form.

Check out my Pumpkin Tumeric Recovery Smoothie & Mango Tumeric Smoothie which both contain tumeric, ginger and cinnamon!

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