Oral Analgesics for Acute Dental Pain

Key Points

  • Acute dental pain can affect the hard and soft tissues of the mouth, and can be due to underlying conditions or dental procedures.
  • Oral analgesics are used for the management of acute dental pain, and there are various medications and medication combinations that can be used.
  • According to ADA-endorsed guidelines, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) have been shown to be more effective at reducing pain than opioid analgesics, and are therefore recommended as the first-line therapy for acute pain management.


Acute pain is pain that is provoked by disease or injury, and is associated with musculoskeletal spasm and nervous system activation.1 While acute pain typically has a limited duration and often resolves,1 pain that lasts longer than 3 months is considered to be chronic.2

Acute orofacial pain can result from pathological conditions, underlying disease processes, and/or their treatment.3 Pain can be attributed to conditions affecting the hard tissues such as caries of the enamel, dentin, and cementum, or it can be due to soft tissue conditions such as gingivitis and periodontitis.4

Nonopioid Analgesics

Nonopioid analgesics include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), as well as acetaminophen. Examples of NSAIDs include ibuprofen, naproxen, celecoxib, and aspirin. They each work via slightly different mechanisms, but in general inhibit cyclooxygenase (COX), an enzyme involved in the conversion of arachidonic acid to prostaglandins, which are mediators of inflammation, fever, and pain.5, 6 The mechanism by which acetaminophen provides pain relief is less clear, but there is some evidence suggesting it involves the inhibition of prostaglandin synthesis in the central nervous system.5,7

NSAIDs act peripherally, meaning they help with pain by reducing inflammation at the site where it is occurring. Alternatively, acetaminophen acts centrally by blocking the transmission of pain signaling within the central nervous system. Due to these differing mechanisms of action, taking NSAIDs and acetaminophen in combination has been shown to be highly effective in reducing mild to moderate pain, as the pain is being blocked at both ends of the nociceptive pathway.8

Acetaminophen and some NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium) are available to patients over-the-counter (OTC) in standard doses (e.g., 200 mg ibuprofen; 325 or 500 mg acetaminophen), but higher doses of these medications can be prescribed to patients. In 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved an OTC fixed-dose combination product containing ibuprofen plus acetaminophen; each 2-caplet dose contains 250 mg ibuprofen and 500 mg acetaminophen.9  There are also several other NSAIDs only available with a prescription, such as celecoxib, ketoprofen, and diclofenac.8

Although effective in relieving acute pain, use of NSAIDs, especially long-term use, can be accompanied by adverse effects. Because prostaglandins have a role in gastrointestinal (GI) mucosal protection and also play an essential role in renal perfusion, by blocking prostaglandin synthesis, NSAIDs can cause GI and renal adverse effects. The most common adverse effect with NSAID use is GI toxicity, which can result in symptoms such as nausea, heartburn, abdominal pain, and bleeding. Additionally, NSAIDs may increase the risk of serious cardiovascular events and nephrotoxicity.5, 10 All prescription NSAIDs must display a black box warning that cardiovascular thrombotic events as well as gastrointestinal risks are possible when using the medication.5

Acetaminophen use has been associated with liver toxicity as well as other less serious adverse effects such as headache, agitation, and GI symptoms.5 Prescription acetaminophen must display a black box warning about hepatotoxicity, as taking over 4,000 mg per day has been associated with acute liver failure.5 Patients may be at risk of exceeding this 4,000 mg limit with OTC drugs, as there are many OTC combination drugs that contain acetaminophen as an active ingredient (i.e., cold and flu medications), and patients may unknowingly take more than one acetaminophen-containing drug at once.11 When NSAIDs are taken in combination with acetaminophen, there is little indication that adverse effects are any greater than those experienced with each drug individually.8

Opioid Analgesics

Opioid analgesics can be used to treat moderate to severe acute pain and include drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and codeine.12 These drugs are often prescribed as formulations that are combined with acetaminophen or aspirin (e.g., 5 mg hydrocodone/300 mg acetaminophen; 30 mg codeine/325 mg aspirin).5

Opioids act as agonists at opioid receptors, and alter the nervous system’s response to painful stimuli. They can be full agonists, partial agonists, or they can be mixed agonist/antagonists.12, 13 The precise mechanism of action of opioids is not known, however specific opioid receptors have been identified in the brain and spinal cord that are thought to play a role.5, 6 While NSAIDs exhibit an effectiveness ceiling where additional dosing does not provide additional relief, opioids do not have an analgesic ceiling.14

Common adverse effects associated with opioids include sedation, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, pruritus, sweating, constipation, and respiratory depression.14, 15 Additionally, prescription opioids contain a black box warning stating the risks of addiction, abuse, and misuse, respiratory depression, accidental ingestion (especially by children), neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (from prolonged use during pregnancy), interactions with cytochrome P450 3A4 inhibitors, and dangers of concomitant use with benzodiazepines or other CNS depressants.5

Clinical Practice Guidelines

ADA-Endorsed Guidelines

In 2023 and 2024, respectively, two ADA-endorsed guidelines were published on pharmacological management of acute dental pain in the following patient populations:

Development of the two clinical practice guidelines on pharmacologic management of acute dental pain was financially supported by a grant from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Children. A guideline panel convened by the American Dental Association Council on Scientific Affairs, the American Dental Association Science and Research Institute, the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine, and the Center for Integrative Global Oral Health at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a systematic review and meta-analyses18 and formulated evidence-based guideline recommendations16 for the pharmacologic management of acute dental pain after one or more simple and surgical tooth extractions and the temporary management of toothache (i.e., when definitive dental treatment is not immediately available) associated with pulp and furcation or periapical diseases in children younger than 12 years of age. The main conclusions of the guideline were that nonopioid medications, specifically nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen alone or in combination with acetaminophen, are recommended for managing acute dental pain after one or more tooth extractions (i.e., simple and surgical) and the temporary management of toothache in children (conditional recommendation, very low certainty). The panel noted that according to the US Food and Drug Administration, the use of codeine and tramadol in children for managing acute pain is contraindicated.

Adolescents, Adults, and Older Adults. The ADA-endorsed clinical practice guideline on acute pain management in adolescents, adults and older adults was published in the February 2024 issue of JADA17  This guideline recommends that nonopioid medications are first-line therapy for managing acute dental pain after tooth extraction(s) and the temporary management of toothache.17 The guideline recommends that the use of opioids should be reserved for clinical situations when the first-line therapy is insufficient to reduce pain or there is contraindication to the use of NSAIDs.17 Additionally, the guideline advises that clinicians should avoid the routine use of “just-in-case” prescribing of opioids and should exert extreme caution when prescribing opioids to adolescents and young adults.17

Dental clinicians should thoroughly discuss acute pain management strategies with their patients, utilize shared decision making and set realistic expectations regarding post-surgical pain. Clinicians should also review a patient’s medical and social history, as well as medication and supplement intake, to avoid overdose or adverse reactions.

Other Guidelines

A 2022 guideline from the CDC recommends that clinicians maximize use of nonpharmacologic and nonopioid pharmacologic therapies as appropriate for the specific condition and patient, and only consider opioid therapy for acute pain if benefits are anticipated to outweigh risks to the patient.19 The CDC guideline indicates that nonopioid therapies are at least as effective as opioids for many common acute pain conditions, including dental pain and pain related to minor surgeries typically associated with minimal tissue injury and mild postoperative pain (e.g., simple dental extraction).19

Selecting an Acute Pain Management Strategy

Various medications and medication combinations can be considered for the management of acute dental pain, and there is no specific regimen that is guaranteed to produce a high level of pain relief in all individuals.20 Additionally, certain treatments may be more suitable than others depending on the degree of postprocedural pain. Hersh et al. 201120 provides categorization of anticipated pain levels following different routine dental interventions (Table 1), and Moore and Hersh 20138 provides an example of oral analgesic options for varying degrees of anticipated pain (Table 2).


Table 1. Examples of Anticipated Postprocedural Pain Levels According to Dental Intervention21

Anticipated Postprocedural Pain: Mild
— Intervention:

Routine Endodontics
Scaling/root planing
Simple extraction
Subgingival restorative procedures

Anticipated Postprocedural Pain: Moderate
— Intervention:

Implant surgery
Quadrant periodontal flap surgery with bony recontouring
Surgical endodontics
Surgical extraction

Anticipated Postprocedural Pain: Severe
— Intervention:

Complex implant
Partial or full bony impaction surgery
Periodontal surgery

Adapted from Hersh et al. 201121


Table 2. Analgesic Use According to Pain Level8

Anticipated Pain Level: Mild
— Oral Analgesic Options:

Ibuprofen 200-400 mg as needed for pain every 4 to 6 hours

Anticipated Pain Level: Mild to Moderate
— Oral Analgesic Options:

Ibuprofen 400 to 600 mg fixed interval every 6 hours for 24 hours
Ibuprofen 400 mg as needed for pain every 4 to 6 hours

Anticipated Pain Level: Moderate to Severe
— Oral Analgesic Options:

Ibuprofen 400 to 600 mg plus acetaminophen 500 mg fixed interval every 6 hours for 24 hours
Ibuprofen 400 mg plus acetaminophen 500 mg as needed for pain every 6 hours

Anticipated Pain Level: Severe
— Oral Analgesic Options:

Ibuprofen 400 to 600 mg plus acetaminophen 650 mg with hydrocodone 10 mg fixed interval every 6 hours for 24 to 48 hours
Ibuprofen 400 to 600 mg plus acetaminophen 500 mg as needed for pain every 6 hours

Adapted from Moore and Hersh 20138


Controlling postprocedural pain can be achieved by targeting the source of the pain (inflammation), which NSAIDs are able to achieve. Opioid drugs on the other hand interfere with the perception of pain and do not target inflammation.12 An overview of systematic reviews in JADA including data on over 58,000 patients following third-molar extractions found that when comparing the pain-reducing efficacy of NSAIDs and opioid analgesics, the combination of 400 mg ibuprofen with 1,000 mg acetaminophen was more effective than any opioid-containing regimen and was also associated with a lower risk of adverse events.20 Additionally, in 2016, the ADA House of Delegates adopted a statement that reads, “Dentists should consider nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory analgesics as the first-line therapy for acute pain management.”

ADA Statement on the Use of Opioids in the Treatment of Dental Pain

In 2016, The ADA House of Delegates adopted the following statement on the Use of Opioids in the Treatment of Dental Pain:

  1. When considering prescribing opioids, dentists should conduct a medical and dental history to determine current medications, potential drug interactions and history of substance abuse.
  2. Dentists should follow and continually review Centers for Disease Control and state licensing board recommendations for safe opioid prescribing.
  3. Dentists should register with and utilize prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMP) to promote the appropriate use of controlled substances for legitimate medical purposes, while deterring the misuse, abuse and diversion of these substances.
  4. Dentists should have a discussion with patients regarding their responsibilities for preventing misuse, abuse, storage and disposal of prescription opioids.
  5. Dentists should consider treatment options that utilize best practices to prevent exacerbation of or relapse of opioid misuse.
  6. Dentists should consider nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory analgesics as the first-line therapy for acute pain management.
  7. Dentists should recognize multimodal pain strategies for management for acute postoperative pain as a means for sparing the need for opioid analgesics.
  8. Dentists should consider coordination with other treating doctors, including pain specialists when prescribing opioids for management of chronic orofacial pain.
  9. Dentists who are practicing in good faith and who use professional judgment regarding the prescription of opioids for the treatment of pain should not be held responsible for the willful and deceptive behavior of patients who successfully obtain opioids for non-dental purposes.
  10. Dental students, residents and practicing dentists are encouraged to seek continuing education in addictive disease and pain management as related to opioid prescribing.

American Dental Association
October 2016
(2005:328; 2012:139; 2016:286)

ADA Policy on Opioid Prescribing

In 2018, The ADA House of Delegates adopted the following policy on opioid prescribing:

Resolved, that the ADA supports mandatory continuing education (CE) in prescribing opioids and other controlled substances, with an emphasis on preventing drug overdoses, chemical dependency, and diversion. Any such mandatory CE requirements should:

  1. Provide for continuing education credit that will be acceptable for both DEA registration and state dental board requirements, 
  2. Provide for coursework tailored to the specific needs of dentists and dental practice, 
  3. Include a phase-in period to allow affected dentists a reasonable period of time to reach compliance, and be it further

Resolved, that the ADA supports statutory limits on opioid dosage and duration of no more than seven days for the treatment of acute pain, consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) evidence-based guidelines, and be it further

Resolved, that the ADA supports improving the quality, integrity, and interoperability of state prescription drug monitoring programs.”

American Dental Association
October 2018

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  19. Dowell D, Ragan KR, Jones CM, Baldwin GT, Chou R. CDC Clinical Practice Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Pain - United States, 2022. MMWR Recomm Rep 2022;71(3):1-95.
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Other Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Pain Management “Conversation Starters” for Patients and Their Health Care Providers

Last Updated: February 2, 2024

Prepared by:

Research Services and Scientific Information, ADA Library & Archives.