Medications for back pain
Acute back pain often goes away on its own over several weeks. In some people, back pain persists. It may not go away completely or it may get more painful at times.
Medicines can also help with your back pain.
OVER-THE-COUNTER PAIN RELIEVERS
Over-the-counter means you can buy them without a prescription.
Most health care providers recommend acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) first because it has fewer side effects than other drugs. Do not take more than 3 grams (3,000 mg) on any one day, or over 24 hours. Overdosing on acetaminophen can cause severe damage to your liver. If you already have liver disease, ask your doctor if acetaminophen is OK for you to take.
If your pain continues, your provider may suggest nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). You can buy some NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, without a prescription. NSAIDs help reduce the swelling around the swollen disk or arthritis in the back.
NSAIDs and acetaminophen in high doses, or if taken for a long time, can cause serious side effects. Side effects include stomach pain, ulcers or bleeding, and kidney or liver damage. If side effects occur, stop taking the drug right away and tell your provider.
If you are taking pain relievers for more than a week, tell your provider. You may need to be watched for side effects.
NARCOTIC PAIN RELIEVERS
Narcotics, also called opioid pain relievers, are used only for pain that is severe and is not helped by other types of painkillers. They work well for short-term relief. Do not use them for more than 3 to 4 weeks unless instructed by your provider to do so.
Narcotics work by binding to receptors in the brain, which blocks the feeling of pain. These drugs can be abused and are habit-forming. They have been associated with accidental overdose and death. When used carefully and under a provider's direct care, they can be effective in reducing pain.
Examples of narcotics include:
- Fentanyl -- available as a patch
Possible side effects of these drugs include:
- Impaired judgment
- Nausea or vomiting
- Slowed breathing
When taking narcotics, do not drink alcohol, drive, or operate heavy machinery.
Your provider may prescribe a medicine called a muscle relaxant. Despite its name, it does not work directly on muscles. Instead, it works through your brain and spinal cord.
This drug is often given along with over-the-counter pain relievers to relieve the symptoms of back pain or muscle spasm.
Examples of muscle relaxants include:
Side effects of muscle relaxants are common and include drowsiness, dizziness, confusion, nausea, and vomiting.
These medicines can be habit-forming. Talk to your provider before using these drugs. They may interact with other medicines or make certain medical conditions worse.
Do not drive or operate heavy machinery while taking muscle relaxants. Do not drink alcohol while taking these drugs.
These drugs work by changing the levels of certain chemicals in your brain. This changes the way your brain notices pain. Antidepressants most commonly used for chronic low back pain also help you sleep.
Antidepressants most often used for back pain are:
Common side effects include dry mouth, constipation, blurred vision, weight gain, sleepiness, problems urinating, and sexual problems. Less commonly, some of these drugs can also cause heart and lung problems.
Do not take these drugs unless you are under the care of a provider. Do not stop taking these drugs suddenly or change the dose without also talking with your provider.
ANTI-SEIZURE OR ANTICONVULSANT MEDICINES
Anticonvulsant medicines are used to treat people with seizures or epilepsy. They work by causing changes in the electric signals in the brain. They work best for pain that is caused by nerve damage.
These drugs may help some people whose long-term back pain has made it hard for them to work or pain that interferes with their daily activities. They can also help relieve radiating pain that is common with back problems.
Anticonvulsants most often used to treat chronic pain are:
- Valproic acid
Common side effects include weight gain or weight loss, upset stomach, loss of appetite, skin rashes, drowsiness or feeling confused, depression, and headaches.
Do not take these drugs unless you are under a provider's care. Do not stop taking these drugs suddenly or change the dose without also talking with your provider.
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Dixit R. Low back pain. In: Firestein GS, Budd RC, Gabriel SE, Koretzky GA, McInnes IB, O'Dell JR, eds. Firestein & Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 50.
Malik K, Nelson A. Overview of low back pain disorders. In: Benzon HT, Raja SN, Liu SS, Fishman SM, Cohen SP, eds. Essentials of Pain Medicine. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 24.
Last reviewed on: 6/13/2021
Reviewed by: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.