What are Pain Killers?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Painkillers are medications designed specifically to ease pain. Usually painkillers are created and sold by pharmaceutical companies. While some painkillers have specific healthcare purposes, like certain migraine formulations, most painkillers are general purpose.

A packet of naproxen sodium pills, a type of pain killer.
A packet of naproxen sodium pills, a type of pain killer.

There are several ways that painkillers are categorized. One method is to divide them into over the counter (OTC) painkillers—those that can be purchased by the consumer without a prescription—and those that require a prescription for a legal purchase.

Opiates were among the first painkillers discovered, with opium being grown and used in ancient times.
Opiates were among the first painkillers discovered, with opium being grown and used in ancient times.

A second way to categorize painkillers is by their chemical type. Painkillers include opiates—also called narcotics: conventional or non-selective, semi-selective, and selective nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs); painkillers that do not fit in any of those categories; and combination painkillers. Two things to be aware of: the Food and Drug Administration does not report on semi-selective NSAIDs,and selective NSAIDs are also called COX-2 inhibitors. Here are some of the most familiar painkillers in each category:

Aspirin is a pain reliever that also limits inflammation and has anti-clotting properties.
Aspirin is a pain reliever that also limits inflammation and has anti-clotting properties.

Opiates codeine, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone
non-selective NSAIDS aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen
selective NSAIDS Celebrex® and Vioxx®
none of the above acetaminophen
opiate + aspirin Endodan® and Percodan®
opiate + acetaminophen Percocet® and Vicodin®
opiate + ibuprofen Combunox®

The opiates were among the first painkillers to be discovered. Opium was being grown by Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Sumerians by about 3400 B.C. It was being used in 5th century B.C. Greece by the physician Hippocrates, along with salacin from willow bark, which is precursor of aspirin, which was created by a German chemist, Felix Hoffman, in 1897. Nineteenth century Germany was the location for the discovery of acetaminophen. In 1889, Karl Morner, a German scientist, discovered that acetaminophen is made by the human body as it metabolized phenacetin, a French painkiller discovery.

But it was not until the twentieth centuries that the NSAIDS were discovered. Indomethacin, the first NSAID to be found, was found in the 1960s by US chemist Tsung-Ying Shen. The COX-2 inhibitors were discovered by US professor W. L. Xie and colleagues in 1991.

Some painkillers, known as narcotics, can be highly addictive.
Some painkillers, known as narcotics, can be highly addictive.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments

Prayers2Heal

RockinGranny- Thank you for the advice, but I was still a little weary about my decision so I kept my research going. Plus my husband wants a say in what medications I take since we have little ones under 10 at home.

I have decided to try Opana. My doctor is suggesting I keep on the long lasting morphine and start with short lasting Opana to see how it affects me mentally and physically. I start tomorrow and will keep this updated.

RockinGranny

Prayers, I've taken just about every pain medication out there and believe me when I say not to count on everything you read. Just because a patient has no significant reaction to Oxycontin, doesn't mean you won't. You might want to start with that drug, simply because it’s been around longer. Stay safe and always follow prescriptions as directed.

Prayers2Heal

For the past nine months I’ve been on both long and short lasting morphine for my back injuries. Unfortunately, I've grown tolerant and because my weight plummeted, my Doctor wants to switch medications instead of upping my dosage. I have to switch to either oxycontin or Opana. There are so many celebrity horror stories overdosing while on oxycontin, it’s scary. However, unlike morphine, it doesn’t cause drowsiness (which certainly is a plus for my family).

Now Opana was new to me, so after research I found it is more potent and has fewer cases of overdoses. In fact, some people say they can’t even tell they’re on anything at all and can function well. Ugh, what is a young mom to do? Decisions. Decisions.

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