Instant pain relief is something our ancestors could only have dreamed of, but that doesn’t make modern painkillers a risk-free magic wand.
Rather than reaching for whatever is in your bathroom cabinet, it’s important to understand how different painkillers work so you get maximum relief.
It is also important however to deal with the root cause of the problem. So, which painkiller is best for you?
PARACETAMOL – blocks molecules called prostaglandins, which tell the brain the body is in pain.
Best for: General pain relief such as backache, toothache and headaches
Side effects: Paracetamol in high doses is dangerously toxic to the liver – just 15 can be enough to cause serious harm an adult and effects may not become apparent until 2-3 days later
ASPIRIN – prevents transmit messages of pain to the brain
Best for: Alleviating flu symptoms as it lowers temperature and also for relieving joint pain.
Side effects: Irritates the stomach lining, so can cause stomach ulcers and bleeding. Some people have allergic reactions to aspirin, developing a skin rash, breathing problems or swelling
IBUPROFEN – a COX inhibitor blocking the production of several types of prostaglandins, which cause inflammation and pain
Best for: Acute pain such as headaches, period pain and joint aches
Side effects: Like aspirin, ibuprofen irritates the stomach lining, causing indigestion and nausea; long term, it can lead to gastric ulcers.
For more severe pain relief your doctor might discuss trying morphine based treatments, available as tablets, liquids, patches or lozenges. In more severe cases a repeat prescription may be appropriate.
CODEINE – blocks pain receptors at the end of nerves, stopping it from reaching the brain.
Best for: One-off relief for sudden pain - after an injury or tooth extraction, for instance.
Helps to relax constricted abdominal muscles that can cause menstrual cramps, so can be good for period pain that doesn’t respond to anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen.
Side effects: Can cause sluggish bowel movements and constipation, some patients may feel drowsy and symptoms of nausea and itching are common.
Opiate medications, including codeine, dihydrocodeine and tramadol, can be addictive.
They should only be used short-term as you become dependent, so always speak to your GP or pharmacist first.
* If none of these work, speak to your doctor about severe pain relief from morphine based treatments, available as tablets, liquids, patches or lozenges.
Also, don’t forget some natural painkillers, such as peppermint extract, olive oil or turmeric. And simple relaxation therapies can help to – a hot bath increases the blood circulation to tight tissue, helping it to relax, good for muscular pain, tension headaches and period pain.
Whichever painkiller you opt for, stick to the recommended dose and steer clear of the expensive branded versions. The cheaper ‘own brand’ versions are just as good.
:: This column is written Dr. Alexandra Phelan is a NHS GP and Online Doctor for Pharmacy2U. Manage your repeat prescriptions by going to www.pharmacy2u.co.uk/NHS