The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as an ‘unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage’.
All of us will experience pain to varying degrees during our lives and most people will have a box of painkillers at the ready for such eventualities.
Pain relief can ease conditions such as headaches, migraine, toothache, nerve pain (neuralgia) and period pain. Painkillers are also useful for reducing fever and discomfort associated with colds and flu.
How do painkillers work?
Painkillers work by affecting chemicals in the body called prostaglandins that get released in response to illness or injury. These chemicals are secreted by the body’s immune system when it fights off bacteria and other invaders. If you injure yourself these chemicals cause pain and inflammation around the wound. Following bacterial infection these chemicals also produce a fever.
Paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen all work by block the production of prostaglandins to reduce pain, inflammation and fever. Aspirin should not be given to children under the age of 16.
How is pain treated?
Pain associated with swelling can be relieved by applying an ice pack for the first 24 - 72 hours of an injury. After that, heat can be applied via a heat pack, heat patch, deep heat spray or hot water bottle. The heat will feel soothing and boost circulation to the area.
For some types of pain, general over-the-counter painkillers may not be effective. For more intense pain a pharmacist may recommend codeine or dihydrocodeine - strong analgesics which should not be taken for more than 3 days as they can cause addiction.
Stronger anti-inflammatory medicines such as Diclofenac, naproxen and tolfenamic acid are only available with an NHS or private prescription.
Migraine-related pain is sometimes treated with ‘triptan medicines’ such as sumatriptan (available without prescription) which act on the blood vessels around the brain causing them to narrow reversing the widening that likely caused the headache.
For very severe pain (such as pain associated with cancer) or for post-operative pain, morphine may get prescribed. Morphine Sulphate dulls pain by silencing nerves in the spine that carry pain signals.
Alternative Remedies & Self-help
- Stress can make pain worse so explore relaxation methods such as exercise and yoga.
- A headache relief stick applied across the forehead can ease pain from a tension headache. The stick uses natural painkillers to relieve pain and relax muscles in the head.
- A heat patch or deep heat spray can aid muscle pain after a physically demanding day.
- Some people use a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine as an alternative to painkillers. This transmits small electrical pulses to the body which may ease certain types of pain. The effectiveness of TENS is inconclusive.