Pain-relieving medications painkillers, or analgesics, are therapeutics designed to treat painful sensations, arising from injuries or medical conditions and diseases. They are distinct from anaesthetics in that they ‘mask’ or treat the discomfort associated with pain, as compared to the complete or temporary eradication of sensations when anaesthetics are used.
Pain medicines date as far back as the 16th century, when opium (a narcotic from the poppy plant) was prepared in an alcoholic solution for the treatment of pain. Decades later and painkillers are still as popular. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey revealed that during the period of 2015 to 2018, 10.7% adults in the U.S (aged 20 years or over) had used one or more prescription painkillers, within 30 days of participating in the survey.
For those who may wonder ‘are painkillers safe for long-term use?’ evidence shows that most analgesic medications only need to be taken for a few days to weeks, at most. However, this excludes situations where chronic conditions may warrant the long-term use of painkillers.
The key findings of the aforementioned survey, moreover, concluded that the use of pain medications was more prevalent among women than men, and increased by age as well.
Research relating to the use of pain therapeutics and gender differences has revealed that the influence of sex on the above-mentioned relationship is not well understood, but it has been observed that differences in analgesic efficacy were related to metabolism, hormonal profiles and body composition too.
How Do Painkillers Work?
- When feelings of pain are experienced, for example when you injure a muscle, the sensory receptors in the affected area of the body ‘pick up’ these painful sensations and transmit them to the spinal cord and brainstem.
- These chemical messages are transmitted via a network of cells, called nerve fibres. Once the message of pain reaches the brain, the information is processed and translated, and ultimately perceived as the discomforting sensations of injury. This entire process occurs within a matter of seconds.
- Painkillers normally work by blocking the transmission of these chemical messages. Analgesic medications, such as the opioid tramadol, interfere with the messaging of pain signals by preventing injured or damaged cells from making or releasing prostaglandins (substances made at the site of infection or tissue damage, relating to illness and injury). Some prostaglandins may be involved in the production of painful sensations and inflammation, at the aforementioned sites of damage.
- For pain, arising from inflammation (such a back pain), anti-inflammatory medications are a more appropriate route of treatment. But for pain associated with nerve damage, painkillers that alter the functioning of the central nervous system (CNS) are the best suited option.
Types of Painkillers
- Opioid pain medications: these are pain-relieving medicines derived from the poppy plant. Opiates work to treat pain by interacting with opioid receptors in the brain cells. These therapeutics release chemical signals that increase the feelings of pleasure and reduce the sensations of pain.
- Non-opioid painkillers: these are analgesic medications which are not opioids by nature. Some of these may be available to buy over-the-counter whilst others may require a prescription for purchase.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): these are medications which help relieve the symptoms of pain by reducing inflammation. The five classic signs of inflammation, according to experts, include pain, redness, swelling, loss of function and heat (which is only applicable to body extremities).
- Compound pain-relievers: when two different therapeutic are combined into one, the result is a compound medication. One such example includes the combination of the opioid, tramadol, and paracetamol. The result is a more superior analgesic in terms of potency.
Are Painkiller Safe for Children?
The administration of pain medications in children is often a complicated issue. Difficulties set in when deciding which analgesics should be used for children and how much of these therapeutics to administer as well. Non-opioid pain tablets and syrups are normally safe for paediatric use, but this is also dependent on other factors, such as body weight and the medical condition of the child.
Things to look out for when administering pain medications to children include:
- The name and purpose of the pain-reliever
- The type and ingredients of the therapeutic
- The recommended dosage as per the patient information leaflet (PIL)
- How to administer the medicine
- The storage guidelines
- Common side effects associated with the medicament
- Special instructions (such as what to do in the event of a missed dosage)
When helping children relieve the symptoms of pain, it is advised to use the types of painkillers you are familiar with and brands you know to be effective. In you are unsure about the safety and efficacy of a particular medicament, there are resources, like online pharmacies, which can provide insightful information. You can also consult a healthcare practitioner for advice.
Are Painkillers Safe for Everyday Use?
Some of the most common questions asked by those who frequently use analgesics are “what are painkillers? and “are painkillers safe?”. In general, any medicine is deemed safe if taken within the recommended dosage guidelines, and exactly as advised.
Dangers relating to the use of pain medications arise when these therapeutics are:
- Administered in high dosages
- Used against the medical advice of a health practitioner
- Used more frequently than they should be
- Used for long-term periods
- Used in conjunction with other medicines or toxic substances, such as alcohol or narcotics
- Sought after without a prescription (in cases where a prescription is required)
The potential for abuse of a therapeutic varies among the classes of pain medications. Some pharmaceuticals have a very low risk of being misused, while others can be easily abused. With that said, any medicament carries a risk of dependence and tolerance.
Typically, treatment with a painkiller should be initiated at the lowest possible dosage which provides effective relief of the discomforting symptoms. This dosage can be increased based on the patient’s tolerance to the medicament, and if there is the onset of adverse effects, the dose ought to be reduced. This adherence maximises benefits, while ensuring safe usage.