Painkillers, otherwise classified as analgesics, are any medications used to achieve relief from pain. These medicines can relieve headaches, arthritis, sore muscles and other types of aches and pains. They are different from anaesthetics, which temporarily prevent the sensation of pain.
There are many types of pain medications, from over-the-counter pain tablets to more potent prescription pain medicines. Each of these offers benefits and risks, as each individual may also have a slightly different reaction to a pain reliever. Some pain medications facilitate a better response to certain types of pain than others do.
There are various steps that patients can take, to help ease their pain following their pain treatment plan. When choosing pain medications, patients must be aware of their response to other medications in general. This determines the type of pain agent used. The World Health Organization (WHO) pain ladder can help with this choice.
A patient's analgesic choice is also dependent on the type of pain they are experiencing. For example, neuropathic pain cannot be treated with traditional pain relievers, as they provide little effectiveness for the condition. Opioid pain medications are usually considered. Patients can also benefit from the category of medications, which are not considered analgesics, such as anticonvulsants and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs).
Pain medications work in different ways on the peripheral and central nervous systems. The human body has nerve endings, which are responsible for transmitting messages to the brain in the event of an injury. Painkillers can change these messages, which transmit in the brain, spinal cord, or area where the injury occurs. These tablets can include everything from aspirin and paracetamol to NSAIDs, opiates derived from the opium poppy and so on.
How pain is felt in the body is a complex process, as it also involves the emotions. A patient's pain experience is thus unique, and certain circumstances and moods of that patient can affect how much pain they actually 'feel'.
Different painkillers activate their functions in contrasting ways. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) alter the way the body responds to pain and inflammation. Opioid analgesics work by inhibiting pain messages in the brain and spinal cord. While the mechanism of action is still under study for paracetamol, it is agreed that it can block pain signals to the brain.
Due to these differing mechanisms in the body, some pain treatment courses contain more than one type of pain-controlling agent. For example, NSAIDs or paracetamol can be added with certain opioids. If patients use a combination of pain medications, it is crucial to read the information leaflets to ensure they do not take too much of either agent - and that the agents can be safely taken together.
Pain is a necessary sensation in the body as it informs the body that it needs extra care. The phenomenon also prevents an individual from injuring a body part even more. However, in some patients, the sensation of pain gets overwhelming, which inhibits them from moving and in some instances, even get out of bed. This is where painkillers come in.
Although individual patients experience different types of pain, there is always a painkiller best suited for that specific pain. The intensity of pain also varies in patients, which further contributes to their choice of pain medication.
The different types of pain include:
The most suitable painkillers that patients can use for the above can be broken down as follows:
Identifying the type of pain is the most vital part of a pain treatment journey. It also reduces the possibility of experiencing side effects or rejection of the pain medication by the body.
Patients who are in pain regularly are typically advised to take over-the-counter pain medication every day. A general dosage structure would involve the painkiller being taken four times daily, until the pain is completely gone or subsided. Other than that, pain medications are taken on an as-needed basis.
NSAIDs are best taken with or after food, to avoid the irritation of the lining in the stomach. Stronger pain medications should be taken for the shortest timeframe possible, in the lowest effective dose. This assists with the prevention of side effects.
Usually, patients will only have to take their analgesics for a few days to a week; however, certain patients have painful chronic conditions and need to take analgesics on a long-term plan. This includes individuals with osteoarthritis, neuropathic pain, or chronic back pain.
Painkillers are usually safe to use, especially the non-prescription agents. However, certain existing medical conditions can hinder their ability and cause further complications for the patient. This includes low blood pressure or heart conditions.
The use of tramadol tablets and pregabalin tablets poses a risk of dependency if not administered according to doctor's orders. These pills should only be used for the intended treatment course, and a tapering off process should be followed upon discontinuation.
Pain medications should not be taken consecutively unless specified otherwise. The indicated maximum dose should not be exceeded. All analgesics have side effects and have the possibility to lead to difficulties. To avoid this, it is important to safely use these medications.
Dr. Lim from Harvard Health Publishing recommends patients take the lowest dose of pain medications to achieve adequate pain relief. She also says if the medication shows no relief, try another pain medication.
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Updated: 27th January 2021
Review Due: January 2022
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