Nonnarcotic pain medications aren’t addictive and can be used to manage mild to moderate pain.

Being in pain can be an exhausting and upsetting experience. Sometimes the reasons you’re in pain aren’t clear, and your pain may even limit your day-to-day function.

Narcotics, also known as opioids, are a class of medications sometimes prescribed for severe pain. They’re quite effective, but there are several drawbacks, including their level of addictiveness, that limit how often they can be prescribed.

There are also various nonnarcotic pain medications that can work to effectively manage your pain. Most of these are available over the counter (OTC) and are much safer than opioids. Understanding which medications are used for which conditions is the key to using them effectively.


Ibuprofen is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that’s recommended for pain due to inflammation. It’s commonly used for conditions such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. It can also be used for the following:

  • muscle pains and strains
  • joint aches
  • sore throat
  • migraine
  • postoperative pain
  • dysmenorrhea


Also known as salicylic acid, aspirin is one of the oldest pain-relieving, nonnarcotic drugs. In addition to having anti-inflammatory properties, it prevents blood clotting. Its uses extend beyond pain relief, but it’s commonly recommended for:


Corticosteroids represent a class of synthetic hormones that mimic the effect of your body’s hormones. They work by suppressing your immune response and reducing inflammation.

There are hundreds of different uses for corticosteroids in medicine. Two common examples include pain relief due to musculoskeletal conditions or abdominal pain related to conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease.

Some common corticosteroids include:


Acetaminophen is similar to ibuprofen in its effects of managing pain as an OTC drug. Unlike ibuprofen, it isn’t classified as an NSAID. Acetaminophen has broad pain-relieving applications, meaning it’s recommended for all types of pain. Examples include:

  • musculoskeletal pain
  • tooth pain
  • joint pain
  • headache
  • menstrual cramps
  • aches and pains due to viral illness


Gabapentin is an antiepileptic drug that’s often used for pain due to herpes zoster infection. This condition is known as postherpetic neuralgia. It’s also commonly used for nerve pain, such as diabetic neuropathy.


Diclofenac is an NSAID similar to ibuprofen, but the oral tablet form is only available by prescription. There’s also a diclofenac gel (Voltaren) that’s available OTC. The oral diclofenac works similarly to ibuprofen but has additional applications for pain relief. Some of these include:

  • gall bladder pain
  • eye pain
  • migraine attacks
  • dysmenorrhea
  • osteoarthritis


Naproxen is an NSAID that’s similarly used to control pain due to inflammation. It was originally introduced as a prescription drug, but was later approved for OTC use.

Aside from helping with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, it has more specific uses. Some of these include:

  • bursitis
  • tendonitis
  • gouty arthritis
  • ankylosing spondylitis

It’s also sometimes used off-label to treat migraine attacks and severe headaches. Some health care professionals may also recommend it to prevent migraine attacks.


You may be familiar with lidocaine, which has been in use since the early 1940s. It’s commonly used to numb areas of your skin, which makes it handy during surgeries as well as pain relief.

It may be prescribed to manage mild, persistent pain in specific areas of your body, such as your gums or joints. It’s generally used for pain with a neurological rather than inflammatory origin. It’s available as a patch and prescribed mostly for postherpetic neuralgia.

It’s thought that acetaminophen is the most widely used non-opioid because it’s easily accessible and commonly added to OTC pain formulas. While it’s typically used to reduce mild to moderate pain, it’s also prescribed together with opioids for severe pain.

Acetaminophen is also considered a first-line therapy for low back pain. As the most common musculoskeletal condition worldwide, low back pain adds to the widespread use of acetaminophen.

The main difference between narcotics and nonnarcotics is the way that the medications work. All narcotics work by blocking your pain receptors.

Nonnarcotics can work through a variety of methods, depending on the medication class. The main classes include:

  • NSAIDs
  • corticosteroids
  • analgesics
  • antiepileptics

Narcotics are significantly stronger and more effective at reducing pain than nonnarcotics. However, they’re also highly addictive and are only available by prescription.

When are prescription opioids necessary?

Prescription opioids are necessary in cases of severe pain. They’re also used to provide anesthetic during surgical procedures and can help manage severe postsurgical pain.

In most cases of moderate to severe pain, a non-opioid medication is recommended first. If that doesn’t seem to help, you may be prescribed an opioid.

Additional non-opioid pain management tips can include natural medications and therapies such as cannabidiol (CBD), capsaicin, and acupuncture.

CBD oil has been increasingly studied for its potential benefits for pain management. One study from 2022 examined its effect on joint pain by surveying 428 people. The study found 83% of those people reported that CBD improved their pain.

Capsaicin is typically used as a topical cream or patch that can be applied directly onto painful areas. This is especially useful for postherpetic neuralgia and HIV-related nerve pain, according to 2017 research.

Aside from natural medications, acupuncture has also shown to be effective for pain. It’s not known exactly how or why it works, but it can be considered for chronic musculoskeletal pain as well as headaches, according to 2018 research.

If you’re living in pain, there are various options that can help turn down the intensity. Sometimes a prescription opioid is necessary, but many times pain can be controlled with safer alternatives.

Nonnarcotics such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen aren’t addictive and are readily available in most drugstores. These may be good options for mild to moderate pain. A health care professional may also recommend a prescription drug for pain relief, such as diclofenac or corticosteroids.

If you prefer not to use drugs, you might consider natural medications and acupuncture to help manage your pain. Whichever your preference, there are evidence-based options available to help manage your pain so you can start feeling better.