Minor pain

There is a high cost for analgesics, the name for the group of medicines used to treat pain (including paracetamol, ibuprofen, aspirin and co-codamol), when prescribed.

Over-the counter alternatives are often available for just a few pence, saving you the cost of paying for a GP to prescribe them.

There are different types of pain and different ways to treat it.

  • Acute pain is short-term, lasting less than 12 weeks. It is a pain described as intense, sharp, burning or shooting, e.g. a sprained ankle
  • Chronic pain is long-term pain that lasts longer than 12 weeks. It is described as dull, constant or aching, e.g. back pain or arthritis
  • Recurrent pain, pain that comes and goes

We're here to help with our 'top tips' on how to ease minor pain.


Most headaches will go away on their own and are not a sign of something more serious. They can last between 30 minutes and several hours.

To ease a headache; drink plenty of water, get plenty of rest if you have a cold or the flu, try to relax – stress can make headaches worse, exercise when you can and take paracetamol or ibuprofen.

Do not drink alcohol, skip meals (even if you might not feel like eating anything), sleep more than you usually would – it can make the headache worse. Do not strain your eyes for a long time – for example, by looking at a screen.

There are many causes of headaches, for example; having a cold or the flu, stress, drinking too much alcohol, not eating regular meals or drinking enough fluids.

See your GP if:

• Your headache keeps coming back
• Painkillers do not help and your headache gets worse
• You have a bad throbbing pain at the front or side of your head – this could be a migraine or, more rarely, a cluster headache
• You feel sick, vomit and find light or noise painful
• You get other symptoms – for example, your arms or legs feel numb or weak

For further information on warning signs for headaches visit: www.nhs.uk/conditions/headaches

Back pain

Back pain is very common and normally improves within a few weeks or months. Pain in the lower back (lumbago) is particularly common, although it can be felt anywhere along the spine, from the neck down to the hips.

The following tips may help reduce your backache and speed up your recovery:

• Stay as active as possible and try to continue your daily activities – this is one of the most important things you can do, as resting for long periods is likely to make the pain worse
• Try exercises and stretches for back pain; other activities such as walking, swimming, yoga and pilates may also be helpful
• Take anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen – remember to check the medicine is safe for you to take first and ask a pharmacist if you're not sure
• Use hot or cold compression packs for short-term relief – you can buy these from your local pharmacy, or a hot water bottle or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth will work just as well.

Although it can be difficult, it helps if you stay optimistic and recognise that your pain should get better, as people who manage to stay positive despite their pain tend to recover quicker.

See a GP if; the pain does not start to improve within a few weeks, the pain stops you doing your day-to-day activities, the pain is very severe or gets worse over time or you're worried about the pain or are struggling to cope.

It's difficult to prevent back pain, but the following tips may help reduce your risk:

• Do regular back exercises and stretches
• Stay active
• Avoid sitting for too long when driving or at work
• Take care when lifting
• Check your posture when sitting, using computers and watching television
• Ensure the mattress on your bed supports you properly
• Lose weight through a combination of a healthy diet and regular exercise if you're overweight.

Visit www.nhs.uk/conditions/back-pain for further information on when to get immediate medical advice.

Period pain

Period pain is common and a normal part of your menstrual cycle. Most women get it at some point in their lives. It's usually felt as painful muscle cramps in the tummy, which can spread to the back and thighs.

Period pain usually starts when your bleeding begins, although some women have pain several days before the start of their period. The pain usually lasts 48 to 72 hours, although it can last longer. It's usually at its worst when your bleeding is heaviest.

You can take ibuprofen or aspirin to help manage your pain. However, do not take ibuprofen or aspirin if you have asthma or stomach, kidney or liver problems. Aspirin should not be taken by anyone under 16 years of age. You could also try paracetamol, but studies have shown that it does not reduce pain as well as ibuprofen or aspirin.

Self-help measures you can try include stopping smoking, gentle exercise, heat (heat pad or hot water bottle - wrapped in a tea towel) on your tummy, a warm bath or shower, massage and relaxation techniques. Transcutaneous electronic nerve stimulation (TENS) may also help to reduce pain.

See your GP if you have severe period pain or your normal pattern of periods changes – for example, if your periods become heavier than usual or irregular.

Sprains and strains

Sprains and strains are common injuries affecting the muscles and ligaments.

For the first couple of days after the injury, follow the four steps known as RICE therapy to help bring down swelling and support the injury:

Rest – stop any exercise or activities and try not to put any weight on the injury
Ice – apply an ice pack (or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a tea towel) to the injury for up to 20 minutes every two to three hours
Compression – wrap a bandage around the injury to support it
Elevate – keep it raised on a pillow as much as possible

To help prevent swelling, try to avoid heat (such as hot baths and heat packs), alcohol and massages for the first couple of days.

When you can move the injured area without pain stopping you, try to keep moving it so the joint or muscle does not become stiff.

Speak to a pharmacist about the best treatment for you. They might suggest tablets, or a cream or gel you rub on the skin. Painkillers like paracetamol will ease the pain and ibuprofen will bring down swelling. But you should not take ibuprofen for 48 hours after your injury as it may slow down healing.

After two weeks, most sprains and strains will feel better. Avoid strenuous exercise such as running for up to 8 weeks, as there's a risk of further damage. Severe sprains and strains can take months to get back to normal.

Visit www.nhs.uk/conditions/sprains-and-strains for further information and medical advice.

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Page last updated 29 June 2022