By Peter Watson M.D. et Judy Watt-Watson M.D.
Chronic pain is common in Canada. However, there are few pain clinics and those that do exist have long waiting lists. There are also few pain specialists working outside of pain clinics. It is, therefore, important for patients to have reputable resources to turn to for their own education.
Many forms of chronic pain can be difficult to treat. It is important to have a team of health professionals involved with a variety of approaches to these problems.
Some conditions, like fibromyalgia and tension-type headache, do not respond well to drugs. Pain management for these conditions includes physical and behavioural strategies mainly. In fact, medications often work best in combination with psychological and physical therapies.
This section focuses on the medications for pain.
Different names for your medicines
Did you know that there are often two different names for each of your medications? The generic name is the name of the active ingredient in the drug. The brand name is given to the drug by the company that produces it.
If two or more companies make the same drug, it may be available under different brand names or under the generic name. The active ingredient, and therefore the generic name, is the same for all versions of the drug. For example, ibuprofen is a generic name and Advil and Motrin are brand names for ibuprofen.
Types of pain medications
Drugs for pain are also referred to as analgesics or “painkillers.” Analgesics come in different types and strengths. Some can be taken together and others need to be taken separately. There are several types of analgesics that can be taken according to how much pain and the type of pain you have:
Non-opioid drugs, such as acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), for mild-to-moderate pain.
- Opioid drugs, such as codeine for mild pain and oxycodone or morphine, for severe pain
- Local and topical anaesthetics, such as lidocaine and EMLA
- Other drugs, such as anticonvulsants and antidepressants, which can also help relieve pain
A step-wise approach is commonly used to treat pain.
How to take pain medicines
There is a right way and a wrong way to take medicine. The most common mistake people make when taking painkillers is not taking them soon enough. Most people wait until their pain is really bad before taking pain medicine. It is much easier to prevent pain from becoming unmanageable when you take the medicine early (when pain is mild) and regularly.
Medicine should always be taken according to the directions on the bottle or the way your doctor has told you. Too much medicine can cause serious harm. But, if you take less than the recommended dose, the medicine may not work.
Pain medications work best when used with physical and pain coping strategies.
For information on pain medicines for children see the Pain Resource Centre at