Self-Medication With Over-the-Counter Analgesics: A Survey of Patient Characteristics and Concerns About Pain Medication

Published:September 28, 2018DOI:


      • We studied individuals who self-medicate pain with over-the-counter analgesics.
      • Prevalence of headache was high.
      • Prevalence of long-standing, frequent, and disabling pain was high.
      • Participants had substantial concerns about their pain medication.


      Pain is a common reason for self-medication with over-the-counter (OTC) analgesics. However, this self-treating population has remained largely uncharacterized. This cross-sectional observational study investigated individuals who self-medicate their pain with OTC analgesics to elucidate their pain characteristics and medication use. In addition, presence of and risk factors for concerns about pain medication were examined. The clinical profile of the participants (n = 1,889) was worse than expected with long-standing pain complaints (median pain duration of 9 years), pain located at multiple body sites (median of 4, and 13% with ≥10 painful body areas), about one-third suffering from daily pain and about 40% experiencing substantial pain-related disability. Head (58.6% of sample), low back (43.6%), and neck (30.7%) were the most common pain locations. About 73% had a physician diagnosis, mainly migraine and osteoarthritis. Paracetamol (used by 68.6% of patients) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (46.8%) were the most frequently used pain medications. About 40% of our sample showed substantial concern about the perceived need for pain medication and the perceived potential for harmful effects (eg, fear for addiction). These findings highlight the importance for health professionals to systematically probe pain patients about their self-medication practices and explore attitudes about pain medication.
      Perspective: This study found that the clinical picture of people who self-medicate their pain with OTC analgesics looked worse than expected. We also identified substantial concerns about pain medication. Therefore, we recommend that health professionals systematically probe pain patients about their self-medication practices and explore concerns about pain medication.

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