NSAIDs are Non-Steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxin, among many others. Acetaminophen, commonly known by the brand name Tylenol, is sometimes considered an NSAID, but actually has very little anti-inflammatory benefit. NSAIDs are used to treat pain, fever, and inflammation, and are generally considered to be fairly safe and well tolerated by most patients.
NSAIDs are commonly used to treat headache, muscle soreness from strains or other injuries, arthritis, menstrual pain and cramping, and mild fever. More severe pain and inflammation may require the use of steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or opiate pain relievers.
One of the benefits of using NSAIDs over steroidal or opiate drugs, is that NSAIDs tend to have relatively mild side effects, and are non-addicting. Steroidal anti-inflamatories work well, but have a wide range of effects in the body, some of which may be undesired, and opiate drugs can cause drowsiness, dizziness, confusion, and sometimes addiction.
The different NSAIDs tend to have very similar effectiveness relieving pain and swelling when used at the suggested doses. Although they use different chemical pathways, their main method of effect within the body is inhibition of COX 1 and COX 2. These COX (cyclooxygenase) enzymes are responsible for the body's swelling response to injury, so by preventing the COX enzymes from operating normally, the NSAIDs reduce swelling.
The COX 1 enzyme also regulates the production of the mucus which lines the digestive tract and protects the stomach from being damaged by its own digestive juices. Because this mucus production is also inhibited by the NSAIDs, many people report heartburn and upset stomach as common side effects of the drugs. The NSAIDs themselves are also acidic, which can cause further stomach upset. More severe cases can result in the formation of ulcers.
Some newer NSAIDs, such as the brand name Celebrex, selectively inhibit only the COX 2 enzyme. These COX 2 inhibitors are believed to cause less stomach upset. Because they are relatively newer, they may require a prescription, and health insurance often does not cover them, due to their higher cost, and similar effectiveness levels compared to standard NSAIDs.
NSAIDs work best for the temporary relief of pain and swelling. As with all medical conditions, if over the counter drugs don't provide you with the relief you need, it's best to see your doctor.