Why do we take painkillers?
Mild painkillers like Ibuprofen and Paracetamol can be used to ease all manner of complaints, including chronic back pain, arthritis and sprains/strains. Some individuals who exercise strenuously on a regular basis also turn to painkillers to calm muscle soreness after a workout.
These kinds of painkillers are known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs for short) and work by suppressing inflammation.
Steroids are also anti-inflammatory and can be used for painful muscles and joints but they work differently to NSAIDs and are associated with more side effects if taken long term.
Stronger painkillers (such as codeine and fentanyl) are known as opioids and are increasingly prescribed by doctors for severe pain – recent findings show that the UK has the world's third fastest-growing rate of opioid use.1 These drugs may be used to calm pain after an operation or after a particular trauma, though they are only intended for short-term use as side effects may occur.
Opioids work by blocking the messages of pain that are sent to the brain via the spinal cord.
What are the benefits of painkillers?
A review into prescribed medicines by Public Health England found that 1 in 10 people seeking help from long-term pain benefited from taking painkillers.2 So, these medications are undoubtedly very necessary, but they do raise a few concerns too.
Are painkillers problematic?
One of the biggest issues with painkillers is that they can simply mask pain rather than getting rid of it. Therefore, experts recommend that any issues are investigated to find out the cause and, therefore, the most suitable treatment. There may be alternatives to your painkillers, such as physio, counseling or lifestyle strategies, which may be more effective. However, do not stop taking any medications until you have had this conversation with your doctor.
Another common issue with painkillers is their side effects. Those relying on painkillers can experience the likes of fatigue, digestive issues like constipation, sickness, brain fog and even memory loss. There is also the huge issue of dependency.
Taking painkillers under the guidance of a doctor means that they can manage/prevent any of these issues so, again, having regular consultations is a must when using painkillers.
Surprising effects of painkillers
Studies have thrown up some surprising insights into the effects of taking painkillers long term. Paracetamol, in particular, hasn't always been shown in a positive light!
Some research has highlighted that paracetamol could be no more effective than placebo when it comes to treating back pain. A study concluded that those taking paracetamol recovered from lower back pain at virtually the same rate as those taking a placebo.3
There's also evidence to show that paracetamol is a leading cause of drug-induced liver injury.4 Although serious, it would take high, long-term use to incur this kind of damage.
Finally, anti-inflammatory painkillers may reduce the muscles' ability to recover and strengthen after exercise.5 Therefore, anyone using painkillers to dull the discomfort of sore muscles after exercise may benefit from other treatments, such as heat (a warm bath is very effective in easing aching muscles!) and stretching.
Should I take painkillers?
As I've already stated, no one should stop taking a prescribed medication without first consulting their doctor. Medications are always prescribed for a reason and we do not want symptoms to return if you halt any medications! If you are worried about your painkiller use, however, there is no harm in speaking with your doctor.
If taking Paracetamol or Ibuprofen, always do so according to the packet instructions. If the pain persists longer than a few days, it is again important to consult your doctor.
Paracetamol can be used for the likes of headaches and non-nerve pain, whilst Ibuprofen may be more suitable for a condition such as arthritis or an injury where there is clearly some inflammation present. Each painkiller works in different ways and hence they are better at treating some conditions over others.
What is the best natural painkiller?
We frequently recommend Devil's Claw for the likes of back pain, joint pain and rheumatic pain. It is a herb that has traditionally been used for such purposes and is not associated with the side effects of traditional painkillers.
The particular remedy takes a few weeks to show its effects, so in the meantime, Atrogel Gel applied directly to the area may relieve some of the tension.
Depending on the circumstances, gentle exercise can also be helpful in easing pain. Swimming is particularly good for the muscle and joints, as the water takes the weight off these areas; though walking and a bit of regular stretching can also be beneficial.
For more natural tips to ease aches and pains, have a look at my blog on this very topic!