Different types of pain medication and side effects

Alongside non-medication strategies, several types of medications may be used to treat pain.

Medications for treating pain are chosen based on the following factors: type of pain, severity and how long the pain has lasted.  Mild pain is usually managed with over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) or acetaminophen (Tylenol®). Depending on the type of pain you are having, your doctor or nurse practitioner might recommend other medications such as antidepressants (e.g. amitriptyline, nortriptyline, duloxetine, venlafaxine) or antiepileptics (e.g. gabapentin, pregabalin) that are specifically helpful for chronic pain. Opioids such as morphine or hydromorphone are often reserved for severe acute pain such as pain after surgery or cancer pain. For chronic pain the use of opioids often do not appear to have long term benefit.

Discuss with your doctor, nurse practitioner or pharmacist about your options that may be suitable for you. Here are some helpful links on this for you. 

  • Don't wait for the pain to get bad

    By controlling your pain early on, you can prevent the cycle of stress and increased pain.

    Make the most of your pain medications:

    • If you have regular medication, take them on time (by the clock). If your medication is to be taken as needed, don’t wait until your pain is getting out of control.
    • Your pain management plan with your doctor or nurse practitioner may include strategies for dealing with flare ups of your pain. These strategies may include pacing your activities, taking breaks, and self-care techniques that work you. Depending on your pain condition there may be medication to take as needed as part of your flare up plan. See Pacing
    • If you have more than one doctor or nurses practitioner, pick one to be in charge of all your pain medications. If more than one doctor or nurse practitioner prescribes pain medication, make sure they are aware of this and talk to each other.
  • Finding the right pain treatment for you

    If you have any chronic medical conditions such as high blood pressure, heart failure, kidney disease, liver disease or stomach problems, make sure your health care provider is aware so they can recommend the best medication for you.

    For most chronic pain conditions, medications work best in combination with other strategies such as psychological therapy (e.g. acceptance commitment therapy (ACT) and/or cognitive behavioural therapy), movement and activity, and self-care techniques.

  • Can I get addicted to pain medication?

    Many people often confuse the term “addiction.” People who are addicted abuse or misuse the drug for reasons other than pain relief.  Addiction can occur with certain pain medication, like opioids; be sure to discuss the risks and benefits of these medications with your doctor or nurse practitioner.

    You may find that if you are taking opioids (for example, morphine and hydromorphone) for a while you may need more of the medication to achieve the same effect in reducing your pain. This is called tolerance – not the same as addiction.

    Over an extended period of time, your body can develop physical dependence. Your body becomes used to the medication so that if you abruptly stop taking it, you may get withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, temporary increase in pain, irritability or anxiety.  This is also not the same as addiction.

  • Pain medications and constipation

    Some pain medications, including opioids, can slow down movement of your digestive system and cause constipation.

    Tips to combat constipation

    • Increase your fluid intake.
    • Increase your dietary fiber intake by eating more fruits (prunes) and vegetables. HealthLink BC constipation information: Constipation
    • Talk to your health care provider about whether it is appropriate for you to use a stimulant laxative (for example, sennosides or bisacodyl) or other medications such as PEG 3350 (Restoralax®, Lax-A-Day®), lactulose or magnesium-containing medications.
    • Docusate is not effective for opioid-induced constipation.
    • Use Metamucil or other over-the-counter fiber supplements with caution. They may not help and may lead to blockage in your intestines if you are on opioids.
  • Pain medication safety
    • Do not make any changes or stop taking any pain medication without first checking with your doctor or nurse practitioner. If a pain medication is not working to improve your pain, your doctor or nurse practitioner may change your dose or try another medication.
    • Keep a current list of all your medications and bring it to your health care providers at every visit
    • Store pain medications in a safe place out of reach and out of sight of children, teens and pets
    • Keep pain medicine in its original container so you do not take it by mistake
    • Do not share medications with others and do not borrow medications from a friend or relative
    • Dispose of unused or expired medications safely
    • Ask about a naloxone kit if you are taking opioid medications. Healthlink: Naloxone
    • Let your healthcare team know if you take any mind-altering substances including sleeping pills, alcohol, cannabis, and illegal drugs
    • If you feel sleepy and/or dizzy, do not drive or work with machinery