When your body is attacked by infection or other damage to the cells, the immune system begins to heal your body by releasing chemicals that produce inflammation at the site of the problem. This process is vital to keeping you healthy, but inflammation can lead to pain and swelling. Anti-inflammatory medications can help to reduce the signs and symptoms of inflammation by decreasing the release of the chemicals or by having a direct effect at the site of the inflammation.
Uses of Anti-Inflammatory Medications
Anti-inflammatory medications (or "anti-inflammatories" as they are often called) decrease both pain and inflammation. By attacking both pain and inflammation, these medications can work quickly to make you more comfortable. For example, the use of aspirin for prevention of heart attacks and decreasing the effects of a heart attack that does occur is well documented. Aspirin and ibuprofen are also commonly used to bring down a fever that may be associated with inflammation and infection.
The anti-inflammatory properties of these medications can be used to treat any pain or discomfort caused by inflammation including headache, muscle aches and pains, pain from infection, toothache and many others.
Types of Anti-inflammatory Medications
Anti-inflammatory medications are typically classified as: steroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS), herbs or Immune Selective Anti-Inflammatory Derivatives (ImSAIDs).
- Steroids. Steroids include drugs such as prednisone, dexamethasone and hydrocortisone. These anti-inflammatory medications are typically used for only short periods so side effects are minimized.
- Prednisone works as an anti-inflammatory by reducing the swelling and redness of skin.
- Dexamethasone works by increasing the production of other chemicals that reduce inflammation.
- Hydrocortisone is a steroid that suppresses the immune system thereby minimizing the inflammatory response.
- NSAIDs. The non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs include over 20 kinds of drugs including common drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen. Known by many brand names, the NSAIDs are well known for combating pain and high fever; however, in high doses these medications act as potent anti-inflammatory medications. These medications are discussed in more detail below.
- ImSAIDs. The Immune Selective Anti-Inflammatory Derivatives are a relatively new class of anti-inflammatory medication that act by blocking the inflammatory cells that typically increase the inflammatory response. Although currently being used primarily in veterinary medicine, this class of drugs may hold promise for human use.
- Herbs and Spices. Several herbs and spices contain the same active ingredients as many of the prescription anti-inflammatory medications. Herbs and spices that may have anti-inflammatory properties include:
- Amica Montana
- Willow Bark
- Ginger (250 mg)
Best OTC Anti-Inflammatory Medications
So, what are the best over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications? Most healthcare providers prefer the drug they use most; however, most providers will also advise to start with one of the drugs and change to another until you find the medication that works best for you and the specific inflammation you have. You may find that what works best for muscle inflammation is not the same medication that works best for a toothache. Before taking any of these medications, you should also be aware of the risks associated with each. As with all medications, if you are allergic to any of the ingredients, you should NOT take the drug.
Most people believe that the three best over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications are:
- Ibuprofen. Commonly known by the brand names Advil or Motrin, ibuprofen is often the first choice of clinicians for treating inflammation. Some studies show that ibuprofen offers exceptional anti-inflammatory properties when compared to other medications. While doses vary depending on your weight, you will typically have to take ibuprofen every 4 to 6 hours to control inflammation and the pain associated with it. The risks from chronic use of this medication include bleeding and the possibility of liver damage.
- Aspirin. Marketed under many brand names, most people simply refer to acetyl salicylic acid (ASA) as aspirin. While most people are well aware of the protection it may offer for cardiac patients, aspirin continues to be one of the cheapest and most effective anti-inflammatory medications. Readily available around the world, aspirin is a great medication for most inflammatory processes including toothache, headache, and muscle aches and pains. Again, long-term use of aspirin can lead to "blood thinning" and a tendency to bleed easily, so chronic use of high dose aspirin should be avoided.
- Naproxen. Known by the brand name Aleve, naproxen is a common NSAID that is recommended for the inflammation that causes low back pain. In addition to being a potent anti-inflammatory, naproxen can provide relief of inflammation and pain for as much as 12 hours making it an excellent choice for those who do not want to take a medication every 4 to 6 hours. Chronic use of naproxen can cause bleeding and circulatory issues that can lead to bloody vomit or stools, chest pain, vision problems, or shortness of breath.