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Pain Medications: What It Is, How It Works, and the Alternatives

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Pain medications have become a common solution for managing various types of pain. Oral painkillers are affordable and provide fast relief. Depending on the type, they can help reduce inflammation or fever. These can help treat common conditions like headaches, neck pain, back pain, and joint pain. However, regular use can have adverse side effects. In case medicines produce harsh reactions, individuals may opt for natural treatments, such as physical therapy and home remedies.

Living with acute and chronic pain can be debilitating, affecting every aspect of life. It is a common sensation that everyone experiences at some point. In addition, it can range from mild to severe, depending on the cause. If left untreated, it could lead to complications. Thus, pain management is essential to maintain a good quality of life. The following sections will explore what pain medicine is, how it works in the body, and alternatives to consider.

What is a Pain Medication?

Pain medications, also known as analgesics, are drugs designed to relieve body pain. It targets the nervous system to reduce the perception of pain. There are various types of medications, each with its own unique mechanisms of action. They are available over the counter or through a medical prescription.

Over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers are safe for general use. It can treat mild to moderate pain, such as tension headaches, muscle aches, and menstrual cramps. Additionally, it comes in several types of administration. The most common type is through the oral route, involving taking doses in regular intervals. Another form is a topical treatment, which involves the external application of medication.

Prescription-based drugs are permitted only for those with a transcription from a health professional. These medications often have stronger doses and can have potent effects on the body. Thus, their availability and use are regulated to prevent adverse reactions or complications. The misuse of these drugs can have negative consequences, such as overdose or developing a dependence.

Types of Over-the-Counter Painkillers

  • NSAIDs: Its main function is to reduce swelling and inflammation in damaged sites or tissues. They are suitable for inflammatory-type diseases, such as arthritis and asthma. Examples are aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium.
  • Acetaminophen (paracetamol): A non-opioid analgesic for relieving minor pain. It has antipyretic properties, which reduce fever. It is important to read the dosing instructions, especially for adults and children.
  • Local anaesthetics: Medications that cause temporary sensation loss in a particular area of the body. A common OTC anaesthetic is lidocaine, which is available in a topical cream.
  • Pain patches: Medicated-containing patches for acute or chronic pain.

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How Pain Medications Work on the Body

Pain medications provide short-term relief from pain and other associated symptoms. Their effects vary depending on the type and dosage. In particular, NSAIDs block cyclooxygenase, the enzyme responsible for the production of prostaglandin. While prostaglandin is necessary for the healing process, the excess can cause chronic inflammation. By inhibiting prostaglandin, NSAIDs can help reduce inflammation that contributes to pain.

On the other hand, paracetamols work on the brain receptors responsible for fever. It is also thought to reduce the intensity of pain signals. It is suitable for minor aches and pains. However, it does not help with inflammation. Knowing this distinction can help in determining the suitable medication, as some conditions are inflammatory in nature.

The effects of pain relievers on the body may be noticeable within 15 minutes to one hour. Some individuals may experience lower temperature, elevated mood, and increased energy. However, they should be used as indicated on the label or instructed by a healthcare provider. Individuals should not exceed the recommended dosage to prevent accidental overdose.

Common Adverse Effects

The common side effects of pain relievers include stomach upset or abdominal pain, nausea, and constipation. Overuse of medicines may also cause rebound headaches. Furthermore, large doses of NSAIDs or paracetamols can lead to high blood pressure, liver damage, and kidney problems.

Pregnant women should consult their provider before using any medicine. While paracetamol may be safe, NSAIDs are typically contraindicated in the third trimester of pregnancy. Additionally, long-term use of opioid medications may cause liver failure and respiratory depression. It also has a high risk of developing physical dependence and tolerance. Therefore, healthcare professionals supervise the intake of opioids and other prescribed drugs.

Wireless TENS machine for pain relief

Alternatives for Pain Medications

Individuals with adverse effects of pain medications may consider non-drug treatments. Several alternatives are available that are as equally effective. Firstly, ginger, turmeric, and capsaicin are natural remedies for pain. They have anti-inflammatory properties suitable for various conditions. Secondly, relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation can also help. It helps relieve stress, relax the muscles, and reduce pain.

In addition, heat therapy can loosen stiff joints, while cold therapy, like ice packs, reduces swelling. Furthermore, physical therapy involves exercises and stretches to improve mobility, strength, and flexibility. This is effective for chronic pain conditions such as sciatica, back pain, and degenerative disc disease. Likewise, it can strengthen the muscles and develop better posture and body mechanics to prevent potential injuries.

Lastly, electrical stimulation is a non-invasive form of pain management. A common type is Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS), which works on the nerve endings to alleviate pain. Other types include Interferential Therapy (IFT) and Electric Muscle Stimulation (EMS). EMS can help boost blood circulation and reduce inflammation from muscle strains and injuries.

TENS as a Method of Pain Relief

TENS therapy uses low-voltage electrical currents to stimulate sensory nerves to relieve pain. It works by blocking the pain signals in the spinal cord from reaching the brain. Additionally, it triggers the release of natural painkillers like endorphins. Endorphins are hormones that bind to opioid receptors to inhibit them from sending pain messages.

A TENS machine is a portable device that is placed on the skin of the pain area. It utilises adhesive electrode pads to deliver the electrical impulses. The adjustable settings of the device can help manage various health conditions, such as arthritis, chronic nerve pain, fibromyalgia, migraines, and period pain.


Pain medications are common treatments that offer short-term pain relief from chronic and acute pain. They are available over the counter or through a prescription in pharmacies. Moreover, there are different types of medicines, namely paracetamol, NSAIDs, and opioids. Their effects vary depending on how they work in the body. However, despite their effectiveness, they can have adverse reactions. The common side effects include nausea, stomach pain, and constipation.

Individuals who want to avoid the risks or side effects of medicines may opt for natural alternatives. This includes physical therapy, relaxation techniques, heat and cold therapy, and electrical stimulation. In particular, TENS therapy is a non-invasive method of pain relief that uses mild electrical currents. It stimulates the nerves to reduce pain perception. Nevertheless, it is advisable to consult a healthcare professional before starting medication or therapy. Finally, seek medical attention if the pain worsens or does not improve.

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