How does ibuprofen work?

Ibuprofen helps relieve pain caused by inflammation, which occurs when the body produces increased amounts of molecules called prostaglandins when you have an illness or injury.

When prostaglandins are released, they make nearby nerves more sensitive to pain – which helps your body realise something is wrong. So for example, when you put your hand on something sharp, the nearby nerves tell your brain, which sends a message that your hand hurts.

Prostaglandins also make tissues inflamed and swollen – they are one of the reasons why you get a sore throat when you are sick and why a sprained ankle becomes swollen and painful.

Because ibuprofen blocks the production of prostaglandins throughout the body, it can be used to help relieve body pain caused by inflammation.

What are the side effects of ibuprofen?

Ibuprofen comes in a range of different formulations. The two most common are oral formulations, which can be swallowed with water, and topical formulations, which are applied to the skin.

After you swallow an ibuprofen tablet or caplet, it ends up in your stomach where it begins to dissolve. As the tablet or caplet dissolves, ibuprofen is released from the tablet or caplet and absorbed into your bloodstream. Once ibuprofen is absorbed into the bloodstream, it travels throughout the body, and can start blocking prostaglandins from being made, which helps reduce pain and inflammation.

In recent years, different formulations of ibuprofen have been developed. Two examples are ibuprofen lysine and ibuprofen sodium dihydrate. The ibuprofen sodium dihydrate formulation is absorbed up to twice as fast as standard formulations of ibuprofen.

There are also formulations especially designed for children’s use. Children’s liquid formulations or soft chewable capsules are available. Children’s liquid ibuprofen can be used from 3 months and the soft chewable capsules can be used from 7 years of age.

Topical ibuprofen – Topical ibuprofen comes as a gel and is applied directly onto painful parts of the body as directed on the label. It is absorbed into the skin at the site of pain.

What is ibuprofen used for?

At over-the-counter doses, ibuprofen is used to provide temporary relief of pain and/or inflammation associated with:

  • Headaches (e.g. migraines, tension headaches)
  • Muscle pain (e.g. strains and sprains, sport injuries)
  • Cold and flu symptoms
  • Period pain
  • Back pain
  • Dental pain
  • Joint pain (e.g. arthritic pain)
  • Sinus pain

Ibuprofen also reduces fever.

Ibuprofen vs paracetamol: types of pain relievers

Pain relievers available in your supermarket or pharmacy can be divided into two groups:

  • Those that mainly act at the site of the pain
  • Those that are thought to mainly act centrally – in the brain

Ibuprofen, aspirin, and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) work by blocking pain signals mainly at the site of pain.

Paracetamol is a different kind of pain reliever that is thought to act mainly in the central nervous system (the brain).

What’s the difference? ibuprofen vs paracetamol

  Ibuprofen Paracetamol
Type of medicine Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) Analgesic
How it works Blocks pain signals mainly at the site of pain Thought to work mainly centrally (via the brain) to reduce intensity of pain signals
Common brand names Nurofen, Advil, Bugesic, Rafen,Herron Blue Panadol, Lemsip Max, Dymadon, Febridol, Herron Gold

History of ibuprofen

Ibuprofen was discovered and developed in the 1950s and 1960s by the research arm of the UK-based Company Boots, led by Dr Stewart Adams and Dr John Nicholson. Boots sold their ibuprofen product to Reckitt Benckiser in 2005.

What is an NSAID?

NSAIDs (short for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), also called anti-inflammatories help relieve pain and reduce inflammation by blocking the production of pain-causing chemicals called prostaglandins.

There are many types of NSAIDs available in both supermarkets and pharmacies. Over-the-counter NSAIDs that you can select for yourself include aspirin, diclofenac, naproxen, and ibuprofen.

Other NSAIDs are available with a prescription from your doctor.

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