Taking ‘analgesics’ or ‘painkillers’ is the easiest way to get rid of headache or body ache. But have you ever tried to find out how do painkillers work? How do painkillers know where the pain is? Read this article to know about the reactions that take place inside the body when you take a painkiller.
The unpleasant sensation of ‘pain’ is the main symptom in almost all medical conditions. Studies show that in the U.S., ‘pain’ is the most common reason for fixing an appointment with a physician. The nervous system plays an important role in triggering the feeling of ‘pain’. Back pain, abdominal pain, knee pain, chest pain or pain in the eye, pain due to a fractured bone, etc., are quite common. Pain can be mild or severe, constant or intermediate, it can be experienced in one particular area or all over the body, or it can be acute or chronic. Whatever the type and cause of the pain may be, it may ruin the quality of life significantly. One may take a painkiller to get rid of the pain. If you are wondering how do painkillers work and how do they know where the pain is, then here is some important information for you.
How do Painkillers Find and Target Pain?
The drugs that help to achieve analgesia (absence of sensation of pain without losing consciousness) are called analgesics or painkillers, but the exact reaction that takes place in the body after ingestion of a painkiller and how it helps relieve the pain is still not known. Scientists know that different drugs act in different ways and help lower pain and inflammation. Studies show that painkillers act on the peripheral and central nervous systems and help achieve topical or systemic analgesia. They usually start to work when they reach the bloodstream through the stomach (within 30 to 60 minutes).
Role of the Nervous System in Pain Detection
When you feel the sensation of pain, it is actually the ‘brain’ that perceives nervous stimuli. When a part of your body (organ, muscle, tendon, nerve, skin, etc.) is injured, the nerve endings (part of peripheral nervous system) send a message to the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord) and you realize that you have ‘pain’ in that particular part. Painkillers inhibit the transfer of the message to the brain and thus inhibit triggering of the sensation of pain. They detect the pathway of the message and cancel the message.
How Do Painkillers Work?
Studies show that during a painful situation, your body produces certain enzymes called COX (cyclooxygenase) which stimulate the body cells to produce ‘prostaglandins’ that cause fever, inflammation and pain. A paracetamol (para-acetylaminophenol is known as acetaminophen in the U.S.) like Tylenol, and the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAIDs) such as Motrin inhibit the production of COX enzymes. Thus, they help to reduce the pain. Tylenol acts on the part of the brain that controls temperature while NSAIDs help to block the production of COX enzymes in both peripheral and the central nervous system. Along with reducing the sensation of pain, the NSAIDs also help to reduce the inflammation. Drugs called ‘anesthetics’ eliminate the sensation and you don’t feel the pain at all. Opioid drugs (narcotic painkillers that contain natural or artificial forms of opium) also act on the central nervous system and bring about opiate-like effects. Certain opioid analgesics (like Tramadol) act on the human opiate receptors. They trigger the release of serotonin and block norepinephrine reuptake.
You must have noticed that painkillers do not deal with the cause of the pain. They just mask the pain so that you can continue with your activities without experiencing pain anymore. The type and dose of the analgesic is determined by the type of pain and the type of treatment required. Codeine, pethidine and morphine are common examples of narcotic painkillers which are recommended for severe pain. They are to be taken on a short-term basis. Non-narcotic painkillers like aspirin and ibuprofen should also be taken only occasionally. Certain drugs contain a combination of narcotic and non-narcotic elements. As you are looking for ‘how do painkillers work’, knowing about the ‘side effects of painkillers’ is equally important.
Painkillers may work adversely if you do not follow the instructions of your doctor. Excessive consumption of NSAIDs may lead to peptic ulcers, renal failure, ovulation problems, kidney/liver problems, stomach irritation and sometimes bleeding too. Moreover, continuous use of painkillers can cause dependency. If a person taking painkillers for several days, stops taking them suddenly, he/she may feel unwell for a short period. Symptoms of painkiller addiction include cravings for drugs, need for an increased dose, increased irritability, social withdrawal, etc.
It can be concluded that painkillers target pain and help lower the pain, but they may affect the function of various organs, if taken in excessive amount or over an extended period. ‘Pain’ actually helps protect the injured organs, because in the absence of ‘pain’, you would keep on using the injured part and end up in a serious situation. Thus, your body sends you a signal and warns you to use the part carefully. Otherwise, how would you realize that the condition needs prompt medical attention? Thus, pain is necessary to protect the damaged part while it heals. The experience of pain helps to avoid the situations which might damage body parts. So, take painkillers only if necessary and consult your physician before taking any painkiller.