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What are NSAIDs?

Jeff Petersen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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NSAIDs are Non-Steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxin, among many others. Acetaminophen, commonly known by the brand name Tylenol, is sometimes considered an NSAID, but actually has very little anti-inflammatory benefit. NSAIDs are used to treat pain, fever, and inflammation, and are generally considered to be fairly safe and well tolerated by most patients.

These drugs are commonly used to treat headache, muscle soreness from strains or other injuries, arthritis, menstrual pain and cramping, and mild fever. More severe pain and inflammation may require the use of steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or opiate pain relievers.

One of the benefits of using these drugs instead of steroidal or opiate drugs, is that NSAIDs tend to have relatively mild side effects, and are not addictive. Steroidal anti-inflamatories work well, but have a wide range of effects in the body, some of which may be undesired, and opiate drugs can cause drowsiness, dizziness, confusion, and sometimes addiction.

The different NSAIDs tend to have very similar effectiveness relieving pain and swelling when used at the suggested doses. Although they use different chemical pathways, their main method of effect within the body is inhibition of COX 1 and COX 2. These COX (cyclooxygenase) enzymes are responsible for the body's swelling response to injury, so by preventing the COX enzymes from operating normally, the drugs reduce swelling.

The COX 1 enzyme also regulates the production of the mucus which lines the digestive tract and protects the stomach from being damaged by its own digestive juices. Because this mucus production is also inhibited by the NSAIDs, many people report heartburn and upset stomach as common side effects of the drugs. The drugs themselves are also acidic, which can cause further stomach upset. More severe cases can result in the formation of ulcers.

Some newer NSAIDs, such as Celebrex, selectively inhibit only the COX 2 enzyme. These COX 2 inhibitors are believed to cause less stomach upset. Because they are relatively newer, they may require a prescription, and health insurance often does not cover them, due to their higher cost, and similar effectiveness levels compared to standard NSAIDs.

These drugs work best for the temporary relief of pain and swelling. As with all medical conditions, if over the counter drugs don't provide you with the relief you need, it's best to see your doctor.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Jeff Petersen
By Jeff Petersen
Jeff Petersen is a freelance writer, short story author, and novelist based in Berkeley, California. He earned his B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Creighton University and loves putting his skills to work creating captivating content for The Health Board. Jeff's articles cover a broad range of subjects, keeping readers informed and entertained with his insightful writing style.
Discussion Comments
By WaterHopper — On May 03, 2011

@dill1971- NSAID’s can be a great option for pain relief but, with any drugs, there are certain people who cannot take them. Your mom’s doctor should be aware of her current medical conditions but it is always still a good idea to know what medicines to avoid.

Generally, NSAIDs should be avoided by individuals who: are on steroids, are taking medications for hypertension, are on chemotherapy, have stomach ulcers or bleeding disorders, are taking blood thinners, or are taking lithium.

Other conditions need to be taken into consideration when taking NSAIDs and it is always best to talk to your doctor about any concerns that you might have.

By dill1971 — On May 02, 2011

My mother's doctor recently prescribed Celebrex for her which I believe is a NSAID. I have heard a lot of things about NSAIDs and the dangers of taking them with certain medical conditions. Can anyone tell me a little about who shouldn't take NSAIDs and why?

By robert13 — On May 02, 2011

Ibuprofin has probably been the most beneficial to me of the various NSAIDs. I find other NSAIDs might work for a headache or something but won't do anything to relieve muscle tension or back pain or the like.

Jeff Petersen
Jeff Petersen
Jeff Petersen is a freelance writer, short story author, and novelist based in Berkeley, California. He earned his B.A....
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