Alternative Names: Painkillers; Drugs for pain; Analgesics; Opioids
Virtually any disease as well as most injuries and surgical procedures involve some degree of pain. It's not surprising, then, that pain medications, also known as analgesics, are among the most commonly used drugs in the U.S. Different medications are used depending on the type of pain.
Pain medications are drugs used to relieve discomfort associated with disease, injury, or surgery. Because the pain process is complex, there are many types of pain drugs that provide relief by acting through a variety of physiological mechanisms. Thus, effective medication for nerve pain will likely have a different mechanism of action than arthritis pain medication. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) act on substances in the body that can cause inflammation, pain, and fever. Corticosteroids are often administered as an injection at the site of musculoskeletal injuries. They exert powerful anti-inflammatory effects. They can also be taken orally to relieve pain from, for example, arthritis. Acetaminophen increases the body's pain threshold, but it has little effect on inflammation. Opioids, also known as narcotic analgesics, modify pain messages in the brain. Muscle relaxants reduce pain from tense muscle groups, most likely through sedative action in the central nervous system. Anti-anxiety drugs work on pain in three ways: they reduce anxiety, they relax muscles, and they help patients cope with discomfort. Some antidepressants, particularly the tricyclics, may reduce pain transmission through the spinal cord. Some anticonvulsant drugs also relieve the pain of neuropathies, possibly by stabilizing nerve cells.
Chronic pain affects around 20% of adults. Chronic pain is usually defined, in medical terms, as constant daily pain that is present for at least three of the preceding six months. Chronic pain can have many causes, sometimes it's the result of a severe injury or a disease (eg, arthritis) but it can also have no diagnosable cause. If you have chronic pain you are not alone. One in five people, including children and adolescents, lives with chronic pain. This rises to one in three people over the age of 65 living with chronic pain. Pain is real even if it can't be explained. An individual's experience of pain is unique to them and different from everyone else's experience. Each person's experience of pain is likely to be different over time. Although chronic pain is ongoing it is not usually at the same intensity all the time. For most people, pain will vary according to what they do, how they feel and what is happening in their lives. Most people experience "pain flares", which are times when the pain is more severe. Sometimes you can identify the cause of a flare such as a poor night's sleep, but sometimes it is hard to identify a reason. Pain flares can last from a few hours to a few weeks, but they are often not a sign of a worsening underlying medical condition or injury.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines are used to reduce pain and inflammation. These drugs are often the first choice for treating the pain and inflammation associated with conditions ranging from headaches to osteoarthritis. There is an upper limit to the effectiveness of these medications, and increasing the dosage beyond a certain point does not increase pain relief. Non-opioid analgesics are not habit-forming.
Chronic use of pain medications, like chronic use of any other medications, can have a variety of adverse effects that can become greater when they are used regularly or over an extended period of time. It is important to stress to patients to only take those medications prescribed by a qualified healthcare practitioner, and to take them as they are directed to be taken.
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All painkillers have potential side effects, so you need to weigh up the advantages of taking them against the disadvantages.