How to treat a headache or back ache

Are you using the correct medication when pain strikes?

05 June 2014
by Rachel McGregor

The niggle: headaches

The prescription: For dull aches, paracetemol, for migraines, soluble anti-inflammatories. If you experience nausea or vomiting, ask your pharmacist or GP for an antiemetic.

There are over 100 types of headaches, and the majority of causes are unknown, explains Dr Russell Raath, anaesthesiologist, pain intervention physician and founder of the Jacaranda Pain Clinic in Pretoria. “In cases where causes are known, by far the most common is the tension headache,” says Dr Raath, “caused by muscle spasms in the neck. Other common causes include neck strain, stress, eye, ear, sinus and dental problems...” (It’s a long list!)

Usually, headaches are not a sign of anything life threatening, and it’s perfectly acceptable to treat them with OTC (over-the-counter) pain medication, as long as they’re occasional. If one dose doesn’t work, try another dose (but only after the recommended interval), rather than opting for a stronger painkiller.

But don’t continue dosing up. “If the pain becomes constant or increases, it’s a bad idea to keep taking more and more painkillers,” says Dr Raath, “as this could potentially damage your stomach, kidneys and liver over the long term. Be sure to consult your GP, who will check things like blood pressure, eyes, ears and sinuses, and if necessary refer you to a specialist to try to remove the cause.”

If you suspect you suffer from migraines – which are usually preceded or accompanied by light-sensitivity, flashes, nausea and/or compromised vision – consider a prescription painkiller or even a soluble anti-inflammatory, which will circulate much quicker.

The niggle: a gammy back

The prescription: A muscle relaxant and an anti-inflammatory will treat pain, but it is important to address the causes with physiotherapy and posture correction.

We all know we’re supposed to bend our knees and keep our back straight when we lift something, but how often do we actually do it? What’s more, many of us sit for long hours in front of a computer screen, which doesn’t help matters.

“There are many causes of backache, most of them avoidable,” says Clicks Pharmacist Eugene Owen. “Previous injury is one cause, as are tight hamstrings or glute muscles, not taking proper care when lifting objects, or bad posture.”

Owen recommends OTC muscle relaxants such as Uniflex, and an anti-inflammatory such as Ibuprofen. This is only short term though – if the problem persists, then you might be harming your back on an ongoing basis. “If your backache is caused by lifestyle factors such as bad posture, then you need to make adjustments, as the pain will simply return after the medication wears off,” says Owen.

In the case of persistent back pain, you should definitely consult a physiotherapist, but there’s plenty you can do to avoid or reduce discomfort, such as investing in an orthopaedic chair, strengthening your core muscles and educating yourself about correct posture. “If back pain is accompanied by leg pain, that is serious,” says Dr Raath, who advises you to seek medical attention immediately.

Smart buys to help you manage your symptoms:

Disprin is an affordable soluble anti-inflammatory used to ease pain. It can also help to reduce fever.

Deep Heat Gel includes natural ingredients like eucalyptus and arnica extracts.

Panado is a well-known and trusted choice for mild to moderate pain. 

Adhesive bandages are a staple for any first-aid kit. Use to treat pulled muscles.

Nurofen express liquid capsules are quickly absorbed for fast relief.

Deep Heat patches provide relief for lower back and hip pain.

All of the above-mentioned products are available in Clicks stores. Ask the Clicks pharmacist on duty for assistance if you need guidance regarding the appropriate medication for your pain.