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Prescription painkillers: what you need to know

Siski Green / 30 January 2015

Chronic pain affects 8 million people in the UK and, as a result, many turn to their GPs for stronger painkillers than can be bought over the counter in a chemist. Find out the important facts about commonly prescribed painkillers.

Man holding out his hand with painkillers
Find out the important facts about prescription painkillers


These types of opioid analgesics are usually only prescribed if other analgesics such as paracetemol haven’t resolved your pain issues. Analgesics work on your nervous system, affecting it so your body doesn’t sense pain in the same way.

Your GP will decide whether you need this type of painkiller based on how your pain affects your lifestyle. If, for example, you can’t move easily because of your pain or have to take frequent rests to avoid greater pain, they might prescribe it. They are cautious in prescribing these types of painkillers because they can be habit-forming and they also cause more side effects than other types of analgesics.

Side effects: Nausea, vomiting, constipation, drowsiness, confusion, respiratory depression

NB Habit forming partly because these types of opioids create a feeling of contentment and wellbeing. Patients may also build up a tolerance to the drug meaning their pain isn’t relieved by the painkiller. It is also risky to drink alcohol while taking these meds, as alcohol also affects the nervous system.


This is an opioid medication, and is usually prescribed for severe pain such as for a patient with cancer, for example. Severe pain is classified as being when it prevents a person functioning normally.

Side effects: nausea, constipation, dry mouth, dizziness, vomiting and drowsiness.

Gabapentin (Neurontin)

This affects the nervous system, reducing abnormal electrical activity in the brain. For this reason it is most commonly used for epilepsy but also pain caused by nerve damage, for diabetics, for example.

Side effects: drowsiness, dizziness, diarrhoea, water retention and weight gain

NB Do not take antacid medications for two hours before or after taking gabapentin as it can affect how the medication is asborbed.


While ibuprofen is available over the counter, your GP may prescribe extra-strength tablets if you’re suffering with long-term pain that isn’t severe. It helps decrease inflammation while reducing pain, so works well for health problems such as arthritis, for example.

Side effects: Upset stomach, nasuea, diarrhoea, vomiting, headache. Tell your GP immediately if you experience more side effects such as easy bruising or bleeding, hearing changes, or swelling of your extremities.

NB Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen increase the risk of heart attack so talk to your GP before taking this type of medication if you’ve been diagnosed with heart problems.  


Commonly prescribed for people suffering with migraine attacks, These work by affecting levels of serotonin, which in turn affect your blood vessels. It’s thought that during migraine blood vessels in the brain become narrower and then widen dramatically, bringing on the headache feeling. Triptans work by decreasing the widening effect that’s thought to bring on the powerful headache.

Side effects: drowsiness, tingling, chest pain. This type of medication is not recommended for those with heart problems.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.