How Do Pain Killers Work?

Medicines and drugs known as “pain killers” work in two major and quite different ways: one is to stop the pain signals and the other is to stop the cause of the pain.

How and when each of these occurs should be discussed separately, so I’ll discuss how painkillers works to stop the pain signals, and how the pain killers work to stop the source of the pain.

Painkillers and Headaches

Imagine you have a headache, whether it’s a headache caused from a migraine, a hangover, or simply eye strain. When you have a headache, it’s usually because a blood vessel in your brain is dilated (widened). When this happens, more blood rushes into your head.

This excess of blood rushing into your head is going to cause a headache, as the blood pounds at a high rate through your brain. If you take aspirin for a headache, this does several things for your body.

One, aspirin is an anti-inflammatory. This means that inflamed tissue becomes less swollen or distended, so the blood vessel becomes less dilated. Two, aspirin is a mild analgesic; that is, aspirin reduces pain without causing unconsciousness. So aspirin reduces pain in and around the blood vessel, though not necessarily curing your condition (in this case).

Three, aspirin is an anti-platelet drug. Platelets in your blood clump together, creating the process of coagulation or clotting. Therefore, platelets make your blood thicker. An anti-platelet drug like aspirin is sometimes called a “blood thinner” for this reason. The blood around your blood vessel becomes more viscous, so its rushing through your blood vessels becomes a less violent process.

<>Killing the Pain by Blocking Pain Signals

Most of the heavy-duty pain killers, such as hydrocodone and morphine, do their job by blocking pain signals before they get to your brain. Many prescription painkillers are going to do the same.

Your body has a central nervous system which transmits command signals from your brain to the muscles and vascular system throughout your body, allowing you to move and breathe and otherwise control your body functions. But the central nervous system also relays signals from your body’s muscles (and other parts) to your brain, giving the brain a status report on how you feel through sensations like sight, sound, taste, smell and, of course, touch.

Why We Feel Pain

Our sense of touch is such an innate part of the human experience that we sometimes take it for granted and diminish it’s role in our lives by focusing on the sights, sounds, and smells around us, but the sense of touch is in many ways the most important sense.

Not only does it tells us what feels good and what hurts (such as touching a hot stove), but it also signals to us when something in our body isn’t quite right. Pain receptors in the brain let us know when we’ve received damage or we feel sick. When the pain becomes too great, we take painkillers to shut off that signal.

That’s what powerful painkillers under names like hydrocodone, demerol, lorcet, vicodin, morphine, percocet, oxycontin (oxycodone), and celebrex do. They shut down the pain signals to your brain, so you don’t feel the pain and might not care about the pain if you did feel it. These drugs do not cure your condition or stop the cause of the pain itself. It might make you feel good, but it’s not really curing your condition. It does give you time and the ability to relax, so your body’s natural healing abilities can work its wonder.

Stopping Inflammation in Your Body

Often when someone is having trouble with severe pain in their body, a doctor prescribes pain killers along with some form of anti-inflammatory drug. So let’s look at what “inflammation” really is.

Inflammation is the body’s first response to an injury, irritation, or infection. Inflammation is what happens when your white blood cells, a vital part of your body’s blood, rushes to the scene of a perceived injury or infection and begins to try to heal your body. You probably remember from 5th grade science class the discussion of the white blood cells eating viruses and bacteria that enter your body. I personally remember a film where they were portrayed as the immune system’s foot soldiers.

That’s an apt image. When an injury occurs, an excess of blood rushes to that part of your body. This is done to get as many white blood cells as possible in the vicinity of the injury, to fight possible infection, stop the flow of blood from your body through the process of blood clotting, and get additional oxygen and nutrients to damaged parts of your body, in order to start the healing process. This excess blood in your body, especially the white blood cells which remain behind (which contain a chemical that signals for more blood flow), causes inflammation.

Too Much Inflammation

Much of the pain comes from this inflammation, though. Remember back to the discussion of the headache, where we discussed the dilation of blood vessels and too much blood flowing through your brain, causing a pounding headache. Inflammation also causes a throbbing or pounding in your body, too. While you might want your body fighting to heal you, there are cases where an inappropriate amount of inflammation occurs.

For instance, many people believe rheumatoid arthritis is caused by an inappropriate amount of inflammation. So taking anti-inflammatories helps relieve the inflamed parts of your body, giving you the pain relief to live a normal life. Like the taking of aspirin, anti-inflammatory meds actual stop the cause of the excess pain, because the inflamed parts of your body are no longer inflamed.

When you have a sports injury or a physical injury to your ankles, knees, and other joints, that’s why people apply ice to the injury. Ice tends to reduce the amount of swelling and inflammation around the injured body part, by limiting the amount of blood flow. Especially in the early stages of an injury, icing a joint can limit the amount of blood flow, so your vascular system doesn’t become dilated or stretched. Once dilated, these vessels are hard to reduce, so icing a joint immediately is a major assistance.

Painkillers and Medicine

In the end, killing the pain is important to healing your body. Your body does most of its healing when it’s at rest and asleep, so if you can make yourself relax and comfortable enough to get your proper rest and sleep, your body is going to heal quicker. That’s why prescribed pain killers that don’t treat a condition are still a legitimate form of medicine, beyond just being a relief to your peace of mind.

Just remember, whether you’re taking pain killers that treat the source of your problem or you are just narcotizing to relieve the stress and pain of your injury, to take the prescribed amount of painkiller. Just like the case of conditions caused by too much inflammation, there’s such as thing as too much medicine.