Skip to content

Common Drugstore Pain Pills Work as Well as Opioids

A new study finds nonaddictive drugs just as effective for ER patients

Pain Pill Alternatives

Getty Images

Long-term opioid use often begins with a prescription painkiller for short-term pain.

Emergency rooms are where many patients are first introduced to powerful opioid painkillers, but what if doctors offered over-the-counter pills instead? A new study tested that approach on patients with broken bones and sprains and found that pain relievers sold as Tylenol and Motrin worked as well as opioids at reducing severe pain.

The results challenge common ER practice for treating short-term, severe pain and could prompt changes that would help prevent patients from becoming addicted.

The study has limitations: It looked only at short-term pain relief in the emergency room, and researchers didn't evaluate how patients managed their pain after leaving the hospital.

But given the scope of the U.S. opioid epidemic — more than 2 million Americans are addicted to opioid painkillers or heroin — experts say any dent in the problem could be meaningful.

The results were published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Long-term opioid use often begins with a prescription painkiller for short-term pain, and use of these drugs in the ER has risen in recent years. Previous studies have shown that opioids were prescribed in nearly one-third of ER visits, and that about 1 in 5 ER patients are sent home with opioid prescriptions.

"Preventing new patients from becoming addicted to opioids may have a greater effect on the opioid epidemic than providing sustained treatment to patients already addicted," Demetrios Kyriacou, an emergency medicine specialist at Northwestern University, wrote in an accompanying editorial.