Should You Use Medication to Ease the Pain

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Make sure you read this article before you reach for that post-workout painkiller Should You Use Medication to Ease the Pain

There is no real way to get around it: running is painful. Or, perhaps better stated, running can be extremely painful. It kind of just comes with the territory, but logging miles on miles calls on using muscles we never knew we had, leaves us feeling achy, sore, and often irritable, and we may even experience some inflammation, joint pain, and the burning sensation that is often associated with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), often experienced by strength training in the weight room. Not to mention, there are those big and little running injuries that pop up along the way. A lot of us rely on regular foam rolling, stretching, and massage, as well as heat and ice, compression, and a lot of rest to kick running pains to the curb. But popping a pain killer or two throughout the day to help ease some of the achiness is also common, especially when it comes to easy to access over-the-counter painkillers. By and large, these drugs are safe, especially when taken mindfully in moderation, and stopped when we are no longer experiencing pain. So why do some folks get a little uneasy and warn against taking painkillers to relieve pain, opting instead for more ‘natural’ remedies? Should you follow suit?

NSAIDS versus Acetaminophen

It is important to first explain that pain killers come in two distinct forms: as anti-inflammatories and in the form of acetaminophen. Drugs such as Advis, Motrin, Aleve, and ibuprofen are also called NSAIDS (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), and while they are not often associated with extreme negative side effects, they HAVE been linked to stomach and gastrointestinal issues and can harm the kidneys when one far exceeds the recommended dosage amount. They may also contribute to muscle breakdown, which is kind of the opposite of what you want when running endurance events. The human body is smart, and when muscles are inflamed, they are actually doing so as a defense mechanism, to help stimulate blood flow and promote healing to injured areas. So NSAIDS that fight inflammation may actually slow the healing process and inhibit muscles from being able to perform as they’re needed during an endurance event.

Pros of Painkillers

The leading advantages of painkillers are probably pretty obvious. They help reduce overall pain and NSAIDS reduce swelling for minor injuries. Painkillers can help reduce the perception of pain as well and have been known to make runners believe they can run faster and longer than they normally would. For your general health outside of running pains and performance, NSAIDS also stop ‘platelet aggregation, meaning they have been known to lower the risk of stroke and heart attack. Plus, painkillers are easy. They are accessible and can be found at drug stores and most grocery stores, and so if you are in a pinch, you probably will not have trouble locating them. They travel well (so long as you stick to ones that would not require prescription identification) and are a quick and easy option when you just have too much on your plate to really focus and devote your time to a lot of rest, relaxation, icing, compression, etc.


Cons of Painkillers

The major issue associated with painkiller is the dosage amount. As long as you stick to what is prescribed as directed on the bottle, you likely will not face any potential harm. However, the story may be very different if you start taking more than the prescribed amount. Overdoses have been linked to liver failures and even death in extreme circumstances. Be careful of how LONG you consistently take pain killers for as well. A longer duration of popping acetaminophen has been linked to dehydration, stomach problems, kidney disease, GI bleeding, and high blood pressure. And unfortunately for those of us who habitually take painkillers after a tough workout to reduce pain, the timing of how these pain relievers do not actually matter as much as the overall amount. There have been several studies conducted that do not link taking NSAIDS just prior to or after an intense workout to helping decrease overall pain and negative pain side effects. Instead, it is more important to simply take the painkiller in a dosage that your body will respond to, during the prescribed window of time as stated on the bottle (i.e. your bottle of Advil might specifically direct you to take one to two pills every six to eight hours for pain, meaning as long as you are consuming adequate amounts of the drug in the noted window of time, overlapping your workout, you should still see results.) While this might sound like a good thing because it minimizes what you have to remember to do in order to avoid pain, it also brings into question the overall impact of just how much your pain will actually be reduced. And beyond the drugs you find in the store, you really run the risk of addiction. We are talking heavy duty opioids that, while they might help ease your extreme pain, most folks run a very high risk of becoming addicted to these drugs. Subsequently, then, many have to go through a ‘withdrawal’ phase, and often have to seek professional help to do so. Unless you have had surgery or a serious injury (like a broken bone, etc), try to avoid these opiate drugs, even if prescribed by your doctor. If you must, limit yourself to taking them just for the day of and after your injury, then go back to painkillers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen.


  1. Kathleen Kenny, OTC Pain Medications: the Pros and Cons, Pharmacy Times
  2. Julia Dellitt, Should You Take Painkillers During Long Runs?, Aaptiv article