Is Tylenol or Ibuprofen Better for My Headache?

Determining which Over-the-Counter Medication is Best for Your Headache

Advil vs Tylenol for Headache Relief
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If you suffer from tension headaches, you may wonder what pill bottle to reach for in your desk drawer or medicine cabinet at the onset of an attack. What is more effective? Tylenol or ibuprofen? Let's investigate this question further.

What is the Treatment of Tension-Type Headaches?

Typically, people with tension headache self-treat with over-the-counter medications and other non-medical therapies like sleep, exercise, hydration, and caffeine.

People tend to go to a doctor's clinic only when their headache is resistant to these therapies, or when they experience other symptoms in addition to their headache, such as visual changes from an aura—this actually suggests a diagnosis of migraine and not a tension headache.

Classic examples of over-the-counter medications for tension-type headaches are:

Ibuprofen vs Tylenol?

So which bottle do you grab from your medicine cabinet or desk drawer? Well, either would most likely work, although ibuprofen may be more effective. One large study of over 450 individuals with tension headache were randomized to receive either 400mg ibuprofen, 1000mg of acetaminophen or placebo. Both ibuprofen and acetamainophen (Tylenol) were more effective than placebo in alleviating headache.

Ibuprofen was found to be more effective than acetaminophen.

On the other hand, another large study compared the effectiveness of placebo vs 1000mg acetaminophen vs 375mg of naproxen (Aleve)—an NSAID like ibuprofen. The study found that while superior to placebo in alleviating headache, there was no significant difference found between acetaminophen and naproxen, in terms of effectiveness.

So the answer is that either tylenol or an NSAID is a reasonable first-choice option for alleviating your tension headache. In terms of dosage, a 200 or 400mg dose of ibuprofen is a typical dose. If you take naproxen sodium (Aleve), a typical single dose is 220 or 550mg.

Remember that NSAIDs do have several potential adverse effects and should be avoided by some individuals, particularly those with a history of stomach bleeding, kidney disease and/or heart disease. Always speak with your healthcare provider before taking an over-the-counter medication to make sure it is safe.

Finally, chronic use of over-the-counter medications can lead to medication overuse headaches, which can be equally debilitating. If you notice that you are taking a tylenol or advil regularly for  headache relief, please relay this concern to your doctor.

A Word from Verywell

If you suffer from tension headaches and want to take an over-the-counter medication, either ibuprofen or tylenol is a sensible choice. You may get more benefit from ibuprofen, but this is not a hard and fast rule. As always, speak with your doctor before you take any medication. 


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