Undergoing dental work is for the most part a pain-free affair. But once you’re home and the anesthetic begins to wear off, you may have some discomfort.
Fortunately, most post-procedure pain can be managed with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs. And while stronger versions of these pain relievers can be prescribed, you may only need one sold over-the-counter.
NSAIDs like ibuprofen or acetaminophen work by inhibiting the release of prostaglandins, substances that stimulate inflammation in traumatized or injured tissues. It differs in this way from the two other primary pain medications: Steroids act like natural hormones that alleviate physical stress in the tissues; and narcotics like morphine or codeine suppress the brain’s reaction to nerve firings.
While these stronger types are effective for stopping pain, they can have several serious side effects. Narcotics in particular can be addictive. Although they may be necessary in serious cases of acute pain, most dentists turn to non-addictive NSAIDs first, which are usually effective with the kind of discomfort associated with dental work and with fewer side effects.
That’s not to say, however, that NSAIDs are risk-free—they must be taken properly or you could suffer serious health consequences. For one, NSAIDs have a blood-thinning effect that’s even more pronounced when taken consistently over a period of weeks. This can lead to bleeding that is difficult to stop and erosion of the stomach lining leading to ulcers. Prolonged use can also damage the kidneys.
As a rule of thumb, adults shouldn’t take more than 2400 milligrams of ibuprofen or other NSAIDs in a day, unless otherwise directed by their doctor. For most, a 400-milligram oral dose taken with food (to minimize stomach upset) is usually sufficient to relieve pain for around five hours.
You’ll usually avoid unwanted health effects by keeping within your dentist’s recommended doses and taking an NSAID for only a few days. Taking an NSAID properly can help keep your discomfort to a minimum after dental work without the need for stronger drugs.