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Medicine check-ups for older adults

Pain medicines

​​Pain is common in older adults. Pain can affect how you enjoy life and your relationships with others. Having stress or a low mood can make pain feel even worse.

Pain medicines can help manage pain but they don’t always get rid of all your pain. Finding what works best to manage your pain can help you enjoy life more. This may include pain medicines, stretching, strengthening exercises, and strategies to support sleep, comfort and well-being.

Pain medicines include:

Type of medicine Name of medicine
analgesics, oral (by mouth) acetaminophen (Tylenol)
analgesics, topical (medicine put on skin)Voltaren Emugel
Tiger Balm
nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) naproxen (Aleve)
ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
opioids codeine
codeine with acetaminophen (Tylenol 3)
oxycodone with acetaminophen (Percodan) oxycodone with aspirin (Percocet)
anticonvulsants (also called antiepileptics) gabapentin (Neurontin) pregablin (Lyrica)
antidepressants duloxetine (Cymbalta)
nortriptyline (Aventyl)


Pain medicines work best when they are combined with other strategies to manage pain. These include being active, stretching, and lowering your stress. Each pain medicine works better for some types of pain than others.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is usually safer for older adults than other pain medicines. Topical pain medicines (also called topical analgesics) can also help. When common pain medicines don’t work to manage pain, your healthcare provider may suggest other medicines, such as antidepressants or anticonvulsants.

NSAIDs and opioids are stronger pain medicines that your healthcare provider may prescribe for certain medical conditions.


Some pain medicines can cause harmful side effects. This is why it’s important to regularly talk to your healthcare provider about your pain medicines. They can help you find the best dose and watch for harmful side effects.

Acetaminophen can be harmful if you take more than the recommended amount. It’s especially important to watch how much acetaminophen you take if you have liver problems or drink a lot of alcohol.

Long-term use of NSAIDs can cause:

  • serious stomach problems
  • high blood pressure
  • a heart attack
  • a stroke
  • bleeding
  • kidney problems

Side effects of opioids include:

  • constipation
  • confusion
  • dizziness
  • feeling tired (drowsy)
  • feeling sick to your stomach (nauseous)
  • needing a higher dose of the medicine to manage your pain (called building up tolerance)
  • developing an addiction (This can happen over time if your body gets used to having opioids.)

Side effects of anticonvulsants include:

  • feeling sleepy (drowsiness)
  • dizziness
  • confusion
  • loss of coordination (like being clumsy) or falling

Older adults have a higher risk of these side effects than people who are younger.

Side effects of antidepressants include:

  • drowsiness
  • constipation
  • dry mouth
  • changes to electrolyte levels in your body
  • changes to heart rate

Do you need a medicine check-up?

It’s important to regularly talk to your healthcare provider and pharmacist about your medicines. Ask if you still need to take all of your medicines or if you can take a lower dose.

More information

For more information about pain medicines, search the name of the medicine in the medication database.

It’s important to know that good pain management includes being active and paying attention to your mental wellness. Complementary medicine therapies, such as massage therapy, meditation, and yoga, may also help manage pain.

Current as of: March 5, 2020

Author: Seniors Health Strategic Clinical Network