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A Guide to Safe Use of Pain Medicine

If you've ever been treated for severe pain from surgery, an injury, or an illness, you know just how vital pain relief medications can be.

Pain relief treatments come in many forms and potencies, are available by prescription or over-the-counter (OTC), and treat all sorts of physical pain-including that brought on by chronic conditions, sudden trauma, and cancer.

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Pain relief medicines (also known as "analgesics" and "painkillers") are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some analgesics, including opioid analgesics, act on the body's peripheral and central nervous systems to block or decrease sensitivity to pain. Others act by inhibiting the formation of certain chemicals in the body.

Among the factors health care professionals consider in recommending or prescribing them are the cause and severity of the pain.

Types of Pain Relievers

OTC Medications

These relieve the minor aches and pains associated with conditions such as headaches, fever, colds, flu, arthritis, toothaches, and menstrual cramps.

There are basically two types of OTC pain relievers: acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Acetaminophen is an active ingredient found in more than 600 OTC and prescription medicines, including pain relievers, cough suppressants, and cold medications.

NSAIDs are common medications used to relieve fever and minor aches and pains. They include aspirin, naproxen, and ibuprofen, as well as many medicines taken for colds, sinus pressure, and allergies. They act by inhibiting an enzyme that helps make a specific chemical.

Prescription Medications

Typical prescription pain relief medicines include opioids and non-opioid medications.

Derived from opium, opioid drugs are very powerful products. They act by attaching to a specific "receptor" in the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract. Opioids can change the way a person experiences pain.

Types of prescription opioid medications include

  • morphine, which is often used before and after surgical procedures to alleviate severe pain
  • oxycodone, which is also often prescribed for moderate to severe pain
  • codeine, which comes in combination with acetaminophen or other non-opioid pain relief medications and is often prescribed for mild to moderate pain
  • hydrocodone, which comes in combination with acetaminophen or other non-opioid pain relief medications and is prescribed for moderate to moderately severe pain
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