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Targeted pain relief or targeted marketing? The truth hurts

A visit to the pharmacy for pain relief can be complicated. As consumers, we are faced with a bewildering choice of pain relief options. But why? Within the Nurofen range we have Nurofen for back pain…

The dizzying range of “targeted” pain-relief options in pharmacies can make your head hurt.

A visit to the pharmacy for pain relief can be complicated. As consumers, we are faced with a bewildering choice of pain relief options. But why?

Within the Nurofen range we have Nurofen for back pain, Nurofen for tension headaches, Nurofen for migraines, Nurofen for period pain, Zavance. Within the Panadol range we have Panadol back and neck, Panadol rapid, Panadol Osteo. And then we face the choice of gel caps, caplets, tablets, soluble tablets …


So is there really a difference in these types of products or is it just a marketing ploy that leaves our homes resembling a pharmacy?

The short answer is … the latter! While there are some small differences between products mostly this is marketing. Generally speaking, all of these products contain the same amount of active ingredient – a substance that is biologically active – and will provide approximately the same level of pain-relief as the next box of Panadol or Nurofen.

Nurofen for tension headache, period pain and back pain all contain exactly the same medication at the same dose (342mg of ibuprofen lysine which is equivalent to 200mg standard ibuprofen).

Target practice

Put simply, Panadol and Nurofen (and other equivalent brands) are unable to “target” specific regions or types of pain. These medications work by blocking enzymes (everywhere in the body, not just the area the is currently painful) which help to make chemicals called prostaglandins..

Less prostaglandin means less pain and inflammation. It is not known exactly how paracetamol works but it does not reduce inflammation. Paracetamol is used to treat pain.

The type of painkiller you need depends upon the type of pain you have. Paracetamol is normally suitable if your pain is not too serious and you do not have inflammation whereas medications such as Nurofen are generally recommended for people who have pain and inflammation, as might be the case with back pain.

Thus if you take the Nurofen specifically for period pain it will work in exactly the same way and produce the same amount of pain relief for a tension headache.


The main difference between the products is in relation to how quickly our bodies absorb the medication (how quickly it is going to work) or for how long they work (if the product is sustained or immediate release).

There are a multitude of techniques drug companies use to increase the rate medications are dissolved in the stomach and thus absorbed into the blood stream.

Examples include using water-soluble salts such as ibuprofen lysine versus ibuprofen acid (standard ibuprofen), or having it already in a liquid form – gel capsule versus solid tablet.

Or they even might add extra ingredients, such as Panadol’s Optizorb® – a patented technology that “allows the tablet to start disintegrating in as little as five minutes”.

Know your pain

The choice of whether to take paracetamol or ibuprofen should be highly dependent on the pain you are suffering from (ibuprofen has more anti-inflammatory properties than pain-relieving, whereas paracetamol relieves pain rather than inflammation) and what other tablets you are taking or medical conditions you have.

So, instead of stocking up your bathroom cupboards with every type of pain relief under the sun it is important to check which medication is most appropriate for you. Your pharmacist can help with this.

Although manufacturers of paracetamol or ibuprofen always stress how safe these medications are, it’s vital you follow the directions written on the packet closely.


To start, only take the recommended maximum number of tablets each day. This is no more than 4 grams of paracetamol or 1.2 grams of ibuprofen (two tablets three times a day).

Many cold and flu preparations also contain pain relievers so it is important you keep track of the total amount of paracetamol or ibuprofen you are taking throughout the day.

Exceeding the maximum dose of paracetamol can lead to liver toxicity; whereas exceeding the ibuprofen daily dose can cause severe irritation to the gut lining.

In addition, there are a few health conditions in which ibuprofen should be taken with caution. Like aspirin, ibuprofen can trigger an asthma attack in some asthmatics.

People with high blood pressure or history of gastric ulcer/severe heartburn should avoid taking ibuprofen because this medication may worsen both conditions.

Ibuprofen can also increase the blood-thinning action of aspirin, warfarin and other anticoagulants.

As always, be sure to check with your pharmacist if you’re in any way uncertain about dosage, and even whether you should be taking a given drug.

And just remember, regardless of the marketing, these drugs can’t “target” a specific type of pain.

Join the conversation

14 Comments sorted by

  1. Karenza Witcombe


    Wasn't this article the subject of a segment on The Checkout just a few weeks ago? Why repeat the same information?

    1. Sebastian Poeckes


      In reply to Karenza Witcombe

      Even if it was on television, not everyone to whom the information is useful would have seen it. No harm in repeating it here. I for one hadn't seen The Checkout program.

    2. Rory Cunningham
      Rory Cunningham is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Test Analyst

      In reply to Karenza Witcombe

      Because not all of us watch TV? I've never even heard of the checkout and I think this a good article. I've wondered if the pain relief was spin or not and it turns out is is spin :D. In regards to the targetting that they spruke, I figured it was like the cancer treatments where they put certain chemicals in it that go to certain areas of the body

    3. Mike Jubow

      forestry nurseryman

      In reply to Rory Cunningham

      The episode on The Checkout (ABC TV) was very entertaining and they expressed the way the various manufacturers spin their products in a very facetious manner. Ever since generic aspirin then panadol etc have come out, my wife and I have always bought the no-frills label at sometimes less than half the price. It reminds me of the bloke in Britain who is selling placebo pills on the web and guarantees that they are the same as used in all new scientific drug trials. He probably has extra strong ones for more severe problems too.

  2. Martin Quirke

    Architect (UK Registered), PhD Candidate at University of Newcastle

    I'm really glad to see an article like this, as I've been enthusiastically attemptiong to educate people about that marketing spin for years! I'm often found shouting at the TV adds when each new 'targeted pain relief' product is advertised.

    I've been anticipating the day when they will have a different product for a pain in your thumb as for your pinky.

    All of this goes to show that no-body reads labels, and happily pays 5x or even 10x the price for a product the TV tells them they need, versus the generic home-brand version which normally does exactly the same job.

  3. David Thompson

    Science Communications at Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment (UWS) at University of Western Sydney

    Ah those creative pharma types, dreaming up new ways to sell the same product over and over again.

    I remember Wil Anderson describing Zavance as 'useful for when you don't want your headache to be gone so quickly'.

    I hadn't seen The Checkout either.

  4. John Crest

    logged in via email

    My favourite ad is the one that tells us its product is for "today's tough pain".

    Until the, I'd never realised pain was weaker in the olden days.

  5. Michael Vagg

    Clinical Senior Lecturer at Deakin University School of Medicine & Pain Specialist at Barwon Health

    Nurofen for pain is 'targeted' the same way that a sprinkler system in a skyscraper is targeted to a fire on the 53rd floor.

  6. Johanna Wilson


    Article is fine and makes sense. Captioning of photographs though..."longhairbroad"??? Does a 1950s noir detective work in The Conversation's photo library?