What is an Analgesic?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Analgesia is the relief of pain, and an analgesic is something designed to relieve pain, usually in some drug used to combat swelling or aches. There has long been a quest for substances or treatments that will help make pain recede. Ancient analgesics included things like the leaves and bark of willow trees, which had a substance called salicin. Salicin derivatives ultimately became one of the common pain relievers called aspirin.

Ancient analgesics included the leaves and bark of willow trees.
Ancient analgesics included the leaves and bark of willow trees.

Sometimes people describe an analgesic as a drug only designed to mask pain but not to address its cause. This is an inaccurate definition. There are certain drugs that do relieve pain without curing or alleviating its source, such as many opiate pain relievers and over the counter drugs like acetaminophen. Other medications can address the root cause of pain; anti-inflammatory medications may reduce swelling that causes discomfort and they don’t simply mask the pain or make people notice it less.

Morphine is an analgesic used to treat chronic pain.
Morphine is an analgesic used to treat chronic pain.

There are numerous types of analgesics and myriad drug delivery methods. Types of drugs include opiates, such as codeine and hydrocodone and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Other medications have been found to be effective analgesics, even if this wasn’t their original intent in designing them. Some tricyclic anti-depressants may be useful in the treatment of chronic pain, and some anti-convulsants have also shown benefit in this respect.

An ice pack, which can be used as a topical analgesic.
An ice pack, which can be used as a topical analgesic.

Drug delivery methods vary, from the simple business of taking an over the counter pill or suppository, to using skin patches that help drugs reach the blood stream faster or to injecting drugs intravenously. Depending upon the type of pain treated and its severity one of these methods may be preferred over another. Alternately several methods may be used together to produce the most analgesic effect.

Some narcotic analgesics are derived from opium.
Some narcotic analgesics are derived from opium.

Due to the many different kinds of medications that have analgesic properties, it’s difficult to talk about side effects or potential benefits as a whole. All medications and the majority of medical treatments have side effects. Even putting an ice pack on the skin may cause it to ache or feel tingly.

Acetaminophen might be considered an analgesic that treats pain without addressing its source.
Acetaminophen might be considered an analgesic that treats pain without addressing its source.

It’s easier to consider medications by group. Here it can be said that NSAIDs may cause excess bleeding and are inappropriate for some people, and medicines like acetaminophen has been linked to liver damage when overused. Opiates tend to have high addiction rates and care must be taken to prescribe only what is needed, and they also tend to create constipation. Certain analgesics like morphine may decrease respiration and need be to used very carefully with proper respiratory support for ill or injured patients.

For people who are prescribed an analgesic, or who purchase an over the counter one, it’s important to use no more than is recommended by a physician or on packaging labels. Side effects may increase when medications are used outside of recommended dosage and some can prove dangerous. They are nevertheless useful, and when taken as recommended, many help promote greater comfort.

Salicylic acid is derived from willow bark.
Salicylic acid is derived from willow bark.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

anon347138

What are analgesics and their effects, as well as their own drug name?

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