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    Promoting self-care for acute pain

    This learning resource outlines evidence-based best practice for pharmacy consultations focusing on acute pain, including appropriate selection of over-the-counter analgesics to enable effective self-care.

    PJ acute pain insert lead image

    Patients should be encouraged to self-care for a range of acute pain conditions. However, given the variety of over-the-counter (OTC) analgesics available, appropriate selection can be confusing.

    In each patient consultation, including those where the patient asks for a product by name, the pharmacy team member must ensure they have all the relevant information and are making recommendations based on patient presentation and preference, alongside the latest evidence and guidance.

    Best practice for pharmacy consultations

    The five steps and treatment summaries outlined below and in the learning resource (available to download here) can be used to achieve best practice for acute pain consultations in the pharmacy.

    Acute Pain: Promoting self care Page 1

    Acute pain: promoting self-care, page 1

    Acute Pain: Promoting self care Page 2

    Acute pain: promoting self-care, page 2

    1. Gather information

    • Use the WWHAM (Who? What? How? Action? Medicines?) questioning approach;
    • Avoid the scripted nature of these questions by talking to the patient and including them in the conversation. Repeat back your understanding for confirmation;
    • Listen carefully to the patient — they will often provide you with answers to some of the questions before you ask them.

    Seek to clarify:

    • Its location;
    • Duration and onset;
    • Intensity;
    • What the pain feels like;
    • Its impact on day-to-day life;
    • The details of any previous treatment.

    3. Eliminate potential red flag symptoms

    If the patient is experiencing any of the following symptoms, refer them to their GP or urgent care immediately.

    • Pain from the central spinal pain region;
    • Difficulty breathing;
    • Dizziness or visual disturbance;
    • Gradual onset or worsening of pain;
    • Headache that worsens on standing or lying down;
    • History of recent physical trauma;
    • Loss of physical function, particularly asymmetrical;
    • Neck pain or stiffness with photophobia (i.e. sensitivity to light);
    • Sudden onset severe headache, reaching maximum intensity within five minutes;
    • Unexplained weight loss.

    4. Discuss the treatment options


    • Benefits of treatment;
    • Timeframes for therapeutic effect;
    • Risks;
    • Alternative treatments (e.g. non-pharmacological and lifestyle);
    • What might happen if the patient does nothing.

    For a summary of the recommended analgesia for common acute pain conditions and important points to remember, see Box.

    Box: Recommended analgesia for common acute pain conditions and important points to remember

    Recommended analgesia for common acute pain conditions

    Lower back pain

    • Low dose non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for shortest duration. Paracetamol use only recommended when in combination[1].

    Period pain

    • NSAID (e.g. ibuprofen or naproxen [POM]) unless contraindicated, then use paracetamol. Paracetamol can be used if NSAID provides insufficient pain relief[2].


    • Combination of triptan (e.g. sumatriptan [POM]), NSAID or triptan and paracetamol. Opioids should not be used[3].

    Sprains and strains

    • Paracetamol or topical NSAID (e.g. ibuprofen gel) first-line. Oral NSAID (e.g. ibuprofen) can be used, if needed. Codeine may be considered as a short-term ‘add-on’[4].

    Important points to remember

    • First-line treatment recommendations vary;
    • Avoid combination analgesics first-line, as using single constituent analgesics allows independent titration of each medicine[5];
    • Analgesic use at over-the-counter doses over a short duration must be safe and effective and align with the patient’s preferences[6];
    • Ensure you are familiar with the products you recommend;
    • Explain clearly the directions on how to take the analgesic;
    • Advise the patient to read the patient information leaflet.

    5. Summarise and close consultation

    • Provide the patient with an opportunity to ask questions;
    • Reassure the patient that they can contact the pharmacy if they have any concerns or questions;
    • Check the patient knows when to seek further help.

    Important considerations relating to analgesic recommendations in pharmacy

    The table, included on page two of the learning resource, provides more information on the indications, cautions and additional information related to the use of NSAIDs (ibuprofen and aspirin), paracetamol and codeine[1],[2],[4],[5],[6][7],[8],[9],[10],[11],[12],[13],[14],[15],[16],[17],[18].

    Download the learning resource here.   

    VIVA CODE: RB-M-15129


    Date of preparation: September 2020

    Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2020.20208446

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