The Unknown Connection Between Caffeine and Painkillers

Caffeine and Painkillers

For many of us, pain management can be a challenge. Regardless of whether you suffer from headaches, joint pain, sore muscles or something different entirely, it’s often difficult to make that pain go away.

That pattern is even worse for people with chronic conditions, who may experience pain on a daily basis.

Ideally, the solution is to tackle the underlying problem, such as focusing on a diet that reduces inflammation. Likewise, you do need to be sure you are getting enough nutrients, as some deficiencies may result in pain (like vitamin D and headaches).

But, to actually tackle the pain immediately, one direction to consider is the use of painkillers and caffeine. Now, you might be familiar with this concept or it may sound strange.

So, let me show you exactly why the combination of caffeine and painkillers is so important.

Caffeine and Painkillers

Caffeine and Painkillers

There is significant research that supports using caffeine and painkillers at the same time. 

For example, one study looked at clinical trials that involved a combination of caffeine and ibuprofen. The authors identified four distinct studies, all of which were high quality (1).

  • ​All of those studies focused on a single pill that contained both caffeine and ibuprofen.
  • ​When analyzing these, the authors found that the combination of 200 mg ibuprofen and 100 mg of caffeine was the most powerful for managing pain. ​This produced the best outcomes.
  • ​The authors noted that this combination is not normally available in tablets.
  • However, they ​thought that similar benefits could be achieved with 200 mg of ibuprofen and caffeine tablets or a moderately strong cup of coffee.

​The association between caffeine and painkillers isn’t limited to this study either.

  • ​Instead, many people already find that doing so can increase the effectiveness of painkillers (2).
  • ​Likewise, a meta-analysis of studies indicates that caffeine may be effective in addition to painkillers, with most research focusing on either paracetamol or ibuprofen (3).
  • ​Here, the level of caffeine varied between 100 mg and 130 mg, depending on the study.

​​In many cases, the size of the observed effect was small, suggesting that caffeine doesn’t have a dramatic impact.

Still, for people suffering pain, any improvement to their treatment is likely to help and it is clear that caffeine helps at least a little.

This association between caffeine and painkillers does also make sense.

In particular, caffeine itself can sometimes play a role in treating pain (4)​. ​This does depend on how often you consume it and how much (5).

  • ​For example, one study found that caffeine could help to reduce post-workout pain (6).
  • ​Indeed, this connection helps explain why caffeine is often used to help athletes (7).
  • ​In a similar way, caffeine has also been associated with reducing joint pain (8).

​One other note is that the connection between caffeine and painkillers is likely to be mitigated by tolerance. So, if you have significant caffeine tolerance, taking caffeine with a painkiller may not have much of an impact.

​This issue may be an indication that you need to cut down on caffeine or consider caffeine cycling – especially if you do want to rely on caffeine to help reduce pain.

Taking Advantage of this Connection

Coffee cups

The research in this area has focused on caffeine and painkillers, particularly ibuprofen. But, there are a few different ways to get these benefits.

One option is to find a supplement that already contains a painkiller and caffeine. These do exist, such as Anacin, which uses aspirin and caffeine.

​You may be able to find similar products at the pharmacy or via prescription.

​However, the problem is that most won’t contain the best ratio of caffeine to painkiller.

  • ​This is particularly evident in Anacin, where you have 400 mg of aspirin and just 32 mg of caffeine.
  • ​So, the caffeine content may not be high enough to have a significant effect on pain.

​Because of this, the most viable alternative is to have your painkiller and caffeine individually. This allows you to control the doses of each and ensure you get the best outcomes.

One option here is caffeine supplements, and there is no shortage of these on the market. For example, the brand Smarter Energy​ is a reputable choice.

  • ​This particular product is marketed as a nootropic, which means that it can potentially improve mental function.
  • ​That effect comes from both the L-​theanine and the caffeine and is a secondary reason for considering supplementing with caffeine.
  • ​Nootropics are growing in popularity anyway and sites like Elite Daily highlight why some people use them regularly.

​​​If you’re not interested in having your caffeine this way, then the final option is simply to drink a cup of coffee when you take your painkiller. In many ways, this idea makes the most sense, especially as many of us drink coffee on a regular basis anyway.

​For that matter, the health benefits of coffee are significant and coffee is even the primary source of antioxidants for many people. There is also no shortage of high-quality coffee choices on the market, many of which taste amazing.

Personally, I find that coffee makes the most sense if you want the benefits of combining caffeine with a painkiller. After all, many of us already have an emotional connection to coffee and find that it is a way to feel better and more alert. In many cases, it also helps to reduce stress and tension.

When you’re trying to fight pain, that association may be beneficial. Besides, it is clear that the various compounds in coffee truly are significant for health. So, why not get benefits from coffee at the same time?

Recommended Organic Coffee
Recommended Organic Coffee

Health Implications

The connection between caffeine and painkillers is mostly focused on one type of painkiller, NSAIDs. This terms stands for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and includes aspirin and ibuprofen (9).

As the name suggests, NSAIDs help to reduce inflammation and this mechanism is how they lower pain. But, painkillers are also controversial and they have to be used with care.

  • ​In particular, the standard side effects include gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure and kidney damage, along with the potential for allergic reactions (10).
  • ​Most of these issues operate in the long-term.
  • ​For example, the site Everyday Health talks about some of the side effects of common over-the-counter painkillers.

 ​So, prolonged use of NSAIDs can significantly increase the risk of health problems. To make matters worse, many people heavily rely on NSAIDs and often take higher doses than is recommended.

Similar patterns are also true for non-NSAID painkillers, like acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol). While these don't work on inflammation, they still come with a range of potential side effects, especially if used too frequently. Likewise, they are tackling symptoms rather than the underlying problem.

​Now, painkillers do have their place, especially for chronic pain management. However, it’s important to weigh up the risks and benefits carefully.

​If you do find that you need to rely on painkillers frequently, then there may be an underlying health issue that needs to be addressed. One good place to start is inflammation, because this can be the basis of many health issues and often contributes to pain.  

​​There are many different foods that help to reduce body inflammation, along with inflammation-causing foods to avoid (like sugar and processed foods). Following these patterns can help you to improve your health in the long-term and decrease inflammation, which is likely to lead to reduced pain.

The site Healthy Simple Life also offers information about how to detect inflammation and approaches to decrease it. ​

Even if your underlying problem isn't inflammation, a diet approach will often help. In particular, it can be a key way to address any nutrient deficiencies and ensure you get a good balance of plant-based compounds. 

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