Forms of medicines for pain

Pain medicines come in a number of different preparations or formulations: for example liquids, solid oral dosage forms, suppositories, gels and creams.

Remember: whatever the formulation an over-the-counter pain reliever has, it is still a medicine.

Liquids

These include syrups and drops. They usually enter the blood stream more quickly than tablets and suppositories. However not all medicines, including pain medicines, are available as a liquid.

Liquids can be unpalatable and may also be inconvenient for some people to take.

Capsules and tablets

Solid oral dosage forms include capsules and tablets. Caplets are tablets in the shape of a capsule. Tablets may be dissolvable or dispersible (often called ‘soluble tablets’) and some capsules contain liquid instead of powder (often called ‘liquid capsules’ gel-caps or ‘soft gel capsules’).

Capsules and tablets are generally similar — much of the choice comes down to your personal preference. For some, caplets, with their elongated shape and smooth surface, are easier to swallow than traditional tablets. Others prefer capsules, but if you suffer from a dry mouth, capsules or large dry tablets can be sticky and difficult to swallow.

Suppositories

These are in the form of a tablet that is inserted into the rectum. They can be especially useful for people who can't take pain relievers by mouth, for example, because they feel nauseous or are vomiting.

Suppositories melt in the rectum and are then absorbed into the bloodstream through the rich supply of blood vessels in this area.

Gels and creams

These are useful for people who can’t take pain medicine by mouth because they feel nauseous or are vomiting, or suffer gastrointestinal side effects.

The active ingredient is absorbed through the skin and enters the blood stream, working in the same way as the other forms of pain relievers.

Read about risks specific to using paracetamol, NSAIDs and codeine.

Your checklist for pain management medicines

There are a number of important things to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about when working out the best pain medicine for your individual circumstances and preferences.

For acute pain:

  • How long will it take to work?
  • What side effects should I expect or watch out for?
  • What can I do to minimise any side effects?
  • Will this medicine interact with my other medicines?
  • What should I do if the pain doesn’t go away?
  • What alternative kinds of pain medicine or management could I consider?

For chronic pain:

  • Should I take this medicine at regular intervals or only when I feel pain?
  • How long will it take to work?
  • Is it safe to use in the long term?
  • How will this medicine benefit me?
  • Will this medicine make me feel drowsy?
  • What side effects should I expect or watch out for?
  • What can I do to minimise any side effects?
  • Will this medicine interact with my other medicines?
  • Could I become addicted to this medicine?
  • What should I do if the pain doesn’t go away?
  • What alternative kinds of pain medicine or management could I consider?