Anti-inflammatory drugs make up a category of analgesic (pain killer) medications that relieve pain by reducing inflammation. They are different from opioids and other narcotics in that they do not affect the nervous system to alleviate pain. Anti-inflammatory medications are most commonly found in over-the-counter drugs but they can be prescription medications as well as herbal remedies.
Many prescription steroids, particularly the category of glucocorticoids, relieve pain by reducing inflammation. Even though these steroids--usually called corticosteroids--are not narcotics, they are very powerful and therefore are only prescribed for short periods of time, usually two weeks maximum. Corticosteroids are often prescribed for reducing low back pain and the joint inflammation in arthritis.
Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)
NSAIDs are the most common anti-inflammatory medications and are usually found in over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen. They relieve pain by preventing the cyclooxygenase (COX) enzyme from synthesizing prostaglandins, which cause inflammation. There are newer COX-inhibitors on the market that reduce inflammation in similar methods, but they are not classed with typical NSAIDs. Even though NSAIDs are not as powerful as prescription corticosteroids, they should not be taken regularly for long periods of time.
Types of NSAIDs
The three chief types of NSAIDs are ibuprofen, naproxen and COX-2 inhibitors. Ibuprofen (brand name Advil or Motrin) was one of the first NSAIDs available without requiring a prescription and is the most popular choice for anti-inflammatory pain relief. However, ibuprofen has the tendency to erode the digestive system like aspirin, so people with digestive disorders, especially those with ulcers, should avoid taking ibuprofen. Naproxen, like ibuprofen, is available in both prescription (brand name Naprosyn) and nonprescription (brand name Aleve) form. It commonly comes in higher doses than ibuprofen, so it's preferable for those with chronic joint pain as the effects last longer. Naproxen can also have undesirable gastrointestinal side effects, but the primary risk with naproxen is its potentially fatal reaction to MAOI medications. COX-2 inhibitors (brand name Celebrex) are prescription-only NSAIDs that have fewer digestive complications than ibuprofen and naproxen. COX-2 inhibitors are also safer for patients taking blood thinners than other NSAIDs, as they do not affect blood clotting.
There are many different natural herbs with anti-inflammatory qualities, however all of them take days to produce pain relieving effects. These herbs include turmeric, ginger, boswellin, arnica, bromelain, devil's claw, licorice root, papaya, St. John's wort and white willow bark.
There are other analgesic drugs that are commonly believed to be anti-inflammatory drugs but have no anti-inflammatory effects. A primary example is acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol). Instead of reducing pain by inhibiting the COX enzymes, acetaminophen blocks the reuptake of endocannabinoids, which, put simply, are pain-sensing neurotransmitters. Therefore, acetaminophen merely reduces the feeling of pain instead of reducing the cause of pain, so it has no real effect on inflammation at all.