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Over-the-counter drugs just as effective at pain relief as opioids

A new study suggests that painkillers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen work just as well as addictive narcotics like oxycodone and Vicodin.
Over-the-counter meds like ibuprofen, tylenol may work as well as opioids when it comes to pain relief. Photo: ISTOCK

In the United States, 91 people die every day from an opioid overdose. If you haven’t heard, those deaths aren’t all from “street drugs” like heroin. According to the CDC, more than 183,000 people have died from prescription opioid related overdoses since 1999. 

Many develop an opioid addiction when they seek treatment for injuries, accidents, or illnesses, and are prescribed opioids to manage their pain. But a new study suggests that those scripts — and the resulting addictions and overdoses — could have been avoided. The research, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), found that over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen and acetaminophen relieved symptoms of pain as effectively as narcotics like oxycodone. 

The researchers looked at 416 patients ages 21-64 who went to the Montefiore Medical Center’s Emergency Department in the Bronx to treat moderate-to-severe pain caused by injuries such as bone fractures, dislocated shoulders, and sprained ankles. 

The patients were divided into four groups, three of which were given acetaminophen combined with opioids including oxycodone, hydrocodone and codeine, while one group was given a combined dose of ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Asked to rate their pain a couple hours after taking the medications, the group that received the over-the-counter drugs reported relief on par with the groups that received the opioids.

 Lead study author Dr. Andrew Chang told Time that the results surprised him. “Most physicians reflexively give opioids to patients with fractures or broken bones,” said Chang, who’s a professor of emergency medicine at Albany Medical Center. “This study lends evidence that opioids aren’t always necessary even in the presence of fractures.” 

Chang said that although the study only examined how non-opioid painkillers can treat pain caused by sprains and fractures, he hoped it could lead to discussions about how to reduce opioid prescriptions in general. “One way to help decrease the epidemic is to decrease the number of people exposed,” he explained. “And changing physician prescribing practices is also an important way to control the epidemic.”