Best Headache Medicine: Top 5 OTC Pain Relievers Most Recommended Across Expert Reviews

Headaches can be a real pain. Thankfully, most can be treated by safe and effective over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medicines, when taken properly and discussed with a doctor, of course. We were wondering which brand name headache medicine and pain relievers were considered the best by experts.

It can be hard to decide, as there are many options and all have the same goal to make you feel better. The New York Times reported that sales of OTC medications exceeded $30 billion in 2015, with pain relievers ranking near the top! This is not surprising, as the sheer amount of choices can be dizzying. Boxes, bottles, names and labels overwhelm the pharmacy and supermarket shelves. And when you have a headache, the last thing you want is the headache of figuring out what to take to get rid of it.

Unfortunately, headache complaints are rising. According to researchers from the American Academy of Neurology, global warming is fueling a rise in neurological diseases ranging from migraines to Alzheimer’s. Researchers in Sweden found the effect on women and men is disproportionate with females two times more likely to be diagnosed with chronic cluster headaches. 

Regardless of gender, when you reach for relief, here’s what’s happening. When you take a painkiller (including those OTC), the drug does two things: First, it depresses the central nervous system, making it more difficult for pain signals to reach the brain. Second, it attaches to opiate receptors to block pain signals coming from the body. Sadly, this pain relief doesn’t come without risks. Risks include tinnitus, fear inhibition, GI side effects and much more. 

It’s important to not overdo it on the over-the-counter pain relief and follow the label’s directions. The Mayo Clinic recommends not taking OTC headache meds more than a couple days a week. But when you want to get rid of a headache, here’s what 11 doctors, pharmacists and medical professionals recommend as the best medicine on the market. Our list is comprised of the most frequently named pain relievers across these reviews. If you have your own suggestions or opinions, please leave them in the comments below!

The List: Best Headache Medicines, According To Experts

1. Advil (Ibuprofen)

Advil has been studied for years. MedicalNewsToday explains, “A 2015 research study examined the benefits of ibuprofen in people with frequent tension-type headaches. The researchers concluded that those with acute headaches with moderate or severe initial pain who took ibuprofen had up to 2 hours of relief. Additionally, ibuprofen also helps with inflammation symptoms such as arthritis and joint pain.” 

In a Tylenol vs. Advil battle, Verywell Health says, “Ibuprofen works better: In an older study published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, over 450 individuals with tension headache received either 400 milligrams (mg) ibuprofen, 1,000 mg of acetaminophen, or a placebo (an inactive sugar pill). Results showed both medications were more effective than placebo in alleviating headache, with ibuprofen the most effective.” 

UC San Diego Health writes, “NSAIDS — or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs — are the first line of treatment when it comes to migraines. These include Advil.” 

2. Aleve (Naproxen)

University of Michigan Health asked a neurologist for her pick for headache relief: “Neurologist and headache specialist Lauren A. Aymen, D.O., explains the best over-the-counter drugs: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) are more powerful compared to acetaminophen because NSAIDs reduce inflammation. Examples of NSAIDs include Motrin, Aleve or Advil. I tend to prefer Aleve (Naproxen).” 

According to GoodRx Health, 78 percent of users say Aleve is worth taking, and here’s why: “Naproxen lasts longer than ibuprofen. The half-life — or time it takes for a medication to lower to half of its starting dose in the body — is about 2 hours for ibuprofen and 12 to 17 hours for naproxen. This is why naproxen does not have to be taken as often as ibuprofen. Similar to ibuprofen, naproxen starts working in as little as 30 minutes. And the side effects are similar as well.” 

3. Excedrin Migraine

U.S. Pharmacist explains why Excedrin Migraine is their first line of defense against migraine headaches: “The first OTC product to gain FDA approval for the treatment of migraine was the combination of acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine (AAC), which is available as Excedrin Migraine. The combination of these agents has been shown to be more effective than any one of the components alone in comparable doses. In a landmark study comparing AAC to placebo, 59% of the AAC-treated patients experienced adequate pain relief in 2 hours compared with 33% with placebo. A further analysis of 172 of these patients who had severe or incapacitating disability showed that 40% of the AAC users had mild or no pain at 2 hours versus 20% for placebo.” 

“Migraines are not your ordinary headache. As any sufferer can tell you, the pain is severe and is often accompanied by vomiting, vision problems and disorientation. While some people opt for prescription medications, over-the-counter products can help ease migraine pain,” U.S. News writes. And according to their poll, Excedrin Migraine wins the most votes from pharmacists.  

4. Tylenol (Acetaminophen)

Avera recommends Tylenol as a go-to pain relief for headaches, writing, “Starting with acetaminophen, or Tylenol, makes sense for a number of reasons. Acetaminophen has less impact on your kidneys when your body processes it. Acetaminophen is easier on the stomach in most cases. Allergies to acetaminophen are rarer than NSAID allergies. Acetaminophen does not thin our blood. When you take other OTC or prescription drugs, there’s less likelihood of a bad interaction with acetaminophen.”

Cedars-Sinai agrees, saying, “Acetaminophen is another type of pain reliever that works best on headaches, minor aches and pains, and fevers. Unlike NSAIDs, acetaminophen won’t cause stomach issues but can still be harmful if overused. For a mild headache, acetaminophen … can be effective.”

5. Bayer (Aspirin)

This long-established pain reliever is definitely capable of handling a headache. “Although the over-the-counter drug is more than 100 years old, two standard, 325 milligram aspirin pills resolve most headaches in an hour or less. Even some people with migraine find relief with this medication, first developed by the pharmaceutical giant Bayer,” Everyday Health writes.

And according to K Health, “Aspirin can be an effective pain medication for many conditions including migraines. It is considered a first-line migraine treatment … It works by blocking enzymes that make prostaglandins, which can trigger pain and inflammation responses with migraines and other problems.” 

Make sure to see your doctor if your headache persists. We hope you find some pain relief in the options above! 


Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. Study Finds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations. This post may contain affiliate links.


  1. I’ve been nursing this persistent headache all morning, and it doesn’t seem to be going away soon, which is bad since I have a busy week ahead of me at work, so I was wondering if there was any medicine I could take that can help. I’m glad you suggested we take Ibuprofen since it is known to be the most effective in alleviating headaches, especially the frequent tension-type ones, making it the first line of treatment when it comes to migraines. I’ll take note of this while I look for a pharmacy nearby where I can buy medicine for my headache soon.

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