How Aspirin Can Work for Back Pain

Aspirin and a glass of water
Aspirin and a glass of water. Stephen Swintek/Stone/Getty Images

Aspirin for Back Pain

The use of aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) in some form is nearly as old as civilization itself.

Hippocrates, and even the ancient Egyptians used an early form of it (salicin, from the white willow tree) to treat pain and fever. Aspirin as a medicine to treat pain was developed by the Bayer company in the 1800s. More recently, aspirin has become a therapy for preventing cardiovascular disease and stroke, but using it in this way should be done according to your doctor's recommendations.

Drug Class and Category of Aspirin

Categorized as an analgesic, aspirin is an over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, or NSAID. NSAIDs are used to relieve pain and inflammation. In some products aspirin is the sole ingredient; in others, it is produced in a combination of two or more substances.

How Aspirin Works

Aspirin treats pain, fever, and inflammation. It can be used for muscle pain, arthritis, minor injuries, and other conditions. Aspirin can be found in tablets and capsules, as well as in gum form and suppositories. The tablets may be plain aspirin, enteric-coated, extended release, buffered or chewable. If you take an extended release or enteric-coated tablets, take them whole - do not crush or chew.

Like other NSAIDs, aspirin works by preventing chemicals called prostaglandins from being formed. The body makes a variety of prostaglandins, each with a different function.

Some of these bring about inflammation. Others relay pain signals, help blood clots to form, or maintain the health of the lining of the stomach. As aspirin blocks the creation of these prostaglandins, it may  prevent the pain and inflammation the prostaglandins would otherwise cause.

When you take aspirin, it is distributed all around the body and exerts its effects in places that might not have been intended.

Side Effects

While side effects associated with aspirin are generally rare, they can occur. 

After you swallow an aspirin, its active ingredient is released in your stomach.

Recall that prostaglandins play a role in blood clotting as well as maintaining the stomach lining. As aspirin inhibits the formation of prostaglandins, it can create problems related to this area. A key example is bleeding in the GI tract.

Side effects in the GI tract may also include irritation or ulcers. If you have a peptic ulcer, aspirin may cause a recurrence.

One way to minimize or avoid certain GI-related side effects of aspirin is to take it in enteric-coated form. Another is to take your aspirin with food.

But buffered enteric-coated aspirin may only confer minimal (if any) protective effects on the GI tract. In fact, it may even be harmful. The Berkeley Wellness newsletter says the enteric coated aspirin may delay your pain relief and/or reduce aspirin's ability to prevent stroke or heart attack, a purpose for which it is taken by many people who are at risk for these conditions.

Aspirin allergy also may occur in some individuals, which would take the form of hives, facial swelling, wheezing and/or shock. People with GI tract, liver or kidney problems, allergy to aspirin or other NSAIDS, should check with their doctor before taking aspirin. Aspirin sometimes causes ringing in the ears and/or partial deafness. If hearing problems occur after you take aspirin, call your doctor immediately.

Alcohol and aspirin are not a good mix. Taking alcohol with aspirin can increase the risk of stomach bleeding or otherwise affect how the drug works in your body. Ask your doctor or read the label carefully to find out the maximum number of drinks you can have between doses.

Aspirin and Children - a Special Warning
Giving aspirin to your child or teenager aspirin to fight the symptoms of the flu may not be the best idea.  Aspirin is known to cause a rare disease in minors called Reye's Syndrome, which has devastating and even lethal outcomes. If your child does take aspirin monitor to be sure they are not taking more than the recommended dose. Overdosing is particularly dangerous in children.

One effective way to do this is to keep the aspirin bottle out of their reach. Another is to never give a child an adult version of aspirin.

Side effect related symptoms in children that require immediate medical attention include changes in behavior, drowsiness, and/or fast or deep breathing.

Other Health Problems and Aspirin
If you are breastfeeding, pregnant (or are trying to get pregnant), have stomach problems, lupus, asthma, heart failure, high blood pressure or kidney disease, vitamin K deficiency, nasal polyps, anemia, bleeding or clotting problems or you are a smoker, consult your doctor before trying aspirin.

Other Medications and Aspirin
It is a good idea to consult with your doctor before adding aspirin your current medication mix, as number of substances may interact with it.

Interactions may occur not only with medications, such as other NSAIDs, but also with some herbal supplements or recreational drugs. If you take medication for diabetes, gout or seizure, or you take hormones, antacids, blood thinning medication, or other aspirin products, or if you are unsure about combining aspirin with what you currently take it's best to speak with your doctor about taking aspirin.

Storing Your Aspirin
Many people store medications, including aspirin, in their bathroom medicine chest, or in the kitchen, near the faucet. But to keep your aspirin in good working order, it is best to store it away from heat and moisture. If it smells like vinegar, it has likely begun to disintegrate and should be discarded.

Take aspirin according to the instructions on the box. Don't take more pills than indicated or dose more frequently. Drink a full glass of water with the dose. If you take aspirin routinely, and you miss a dose, take it as soon as you can, unless it is almost time for the next dose.

If you have health problems, or are taking other medications, check with your doctor for the dosage information that is right for you.

Aspirin is readily available in generic form. There are also quite a few brands of aspirin. Common brand names for aspirin include (but are not limited to) Bayer, Ascriptin, Ecotrin, Empirin, ZORprin and others.

What Did You Learn About Aspirin for Back Pain? Take the Aspirin Quiz.
Now that you have read about aspirin for back pain or neck pain, try testing your knowledge on the topic by taking the Aspirin for Back Pain Quiz. Quizzing yourself helps you to ingrain the facts and details about the medication, and may help you pick up some safety information you didn't get the first time. There is also a Motrin for Back Pain Quiz, and a Tylenol for Back Pain Quiz, so try them all and you will go into the drugstore armed with the information you need to make the best possible choice for you.


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Hochadel, M., PhD., ed., The AARP Guide to Pills., Gold Standard Publishers. Tampa, Fl 2006.

Perez-Pena,. Secrets of the Mummy. New York Times. Sept 2005.

How Aspirin Works. The Neurology Reading Room. The Johns Hopkins Hospital website. Dec 2002.

Raffa, R., Rawls, S., Beyzarov, E. Netter's Illustrated Pharmacology. Icon Learning Systems. Teterborough, NJ. 2005

Salicylates (Systemic). website. Nov 2007.

Stringer, J. Basic Concepts in Pharmacology. 3rd ed. McGraw Hill. 2006.

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