How Do Pain Relievers Work?

The feeling of pain is subjective and hence cannot have an objective definition. It is a feeling of discomfort that you might experience after falling on the ground, hitting something hard, colliding with an object or a person, muscle pull, etc. There cannot be enough examples to exhaustively cover why pain is experienced.

Often, our sleep position is so awkward that we end up having a muscle pull that aches badly. Other times, especially in this time and era, back and neck pain are the most common examples we can observe in everyday life. This is mostly due to our slacking posture while constantly being bent over our phones, gadgets, or laptops. 

Your experience of pain can tell your doctor a lot about your overall health. If you happen to experience pain suddenly, which goes within a few days or a week, it is most probably categorized as acute pain. There is another type of pain that is constantly ongoing. It does not get well within a few days or weeks, unlike acute pain, and is known as chronic pain. It lasts for more than 3 months. 

Pain Management 

Pain Management

Now that you have hurt yourself or pulled a muscle, it is necessary to move on to the next phase: pain management. Here comes the discussion of painkillers. What are painkillers? We know them as little magical pills that relieve our pain. Let us get to know them a little bit. 

Types of Painkillers 

Types of Painkillers

1. Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) 

This one is mostly considered an over-the-counter medicine – implying you can get them without a prescription from a doctor. They are known for blocking pain catalyzing substances, such as COX-1 and COX-2. They aim at reducing inflammation in the body, which in turn relieves pain. It mostly goes by the names: aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen. 

They are effective for: 

  • Headaches 
  • Backaches 
  • Muscle aches 
  • Menstrual pain 
  • Arthritis 
  • Sprains 

2. Paracetamol 

Paracetamol is an analgesic or simple painkiller used to manage mild to moderate pain. It is also very effective in decreasing a raised body temperature or fever. It is usually suggested after child immunizations to relieve the kids from pain or protect them from fever. 

3. Opioids 

These are also called opiates and are considered to be very effective analgesic. They are prescribed for extreme pain management and should not be taken without a prescription. Moreover, the dose should be administered by the doctor as abuse of opioids is fairly common. Their addiction can manifest severe adverse effects. 

How Do Painkillers Work? 

The most fundamental thing to understand about how pain relievers work is to understand how we feel pain. Our body is made up of gazillions of nerve endings in our skin and tissues. These nerve endings are the key receptors of the sense of pain and immediately convey the feeling of pain to the brain. All this happens in a split of a second. A heavy basketball hits you on the hand, and the nerve endings quickly sense pain and send signals to the brain. The brain then makes you realize the pain. 

This work is done by some chemicals known as prostaglandins, present in the nerve endings in our skin and pick up the slightest of pain. They are released when your skin experiences an injury or a hit, or a bump. The release of prostaglandins transmits the sensation to the brain, and hence, you feel pain. 


The feeling of pain is often unbearable. It is painful, but it is not all bad. There is a positive side to feeling pain as well. It is our body’s warning sign that something is wrong and needs attention. For instance, if there was no feeling of pain, your hand could be burnt without knowing if you do not notice. Since you experience pain in an instant and remove your hand from the source of burning that very instant, you are saved from severe casualties. 

Almost all pain relievers, like ibuprofen, work to minimize the release of prostaglandins. If the skin cells stop making this, there will be nothing to send pain signals to the brain. Painkillers work their way to stop the release of this chemical according to their efficacy. This results in the brain gradually not signaling any feelings of pain to you. 

Stronger painkillers, such as opioids or some NSAIDs, are prescribed by physicians after surgery at the hospital. These work way faster than simple paracetamol or ibuprofen. 

How Does a Topical Pain Reliever Work? 


Most over-the-counter topical pain-relieving medicines or gels have an active ingredient called salicylate, also known as the oil of wintergreen. This ingredient has a strong minty smell that aims at providing a cooling sensation. The trick lies in the use of methyl salicylate in topical pain relievers. They are used as a distraction from pain points. 

So, rubbing them on specific area results in a strong odor hitting your senses and a cooling sensation tantalizing you; thus, distracting you from the pain. However, this is not the only way these topical pain relievers work. They also contain NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, that help in decreasing inflammation in the body. 

A topical pain reliever is usually used when you are experiencing musculoskeletal pain. Nagging muscle pain in your shoulder or a sore muscle in your neck can be instantly relieved with an effective topical pain-relieving gel. 

Possible Side-Effects 


Painkillers or relievers do not come without a price. Following is a list of different possible side-effects of the various pain relievers:

1. NSAIDs 

Taking these, at least for a short-term basis, has been proven to have no serious side effects. These pain relievers are more beneficial than harmful if taken in moderation. However, potential side effects can occur if the drugs are abused. These might include bleeding in the stomach or gut and some cardiovascular problems. 

2. Paracetamol 

There is nothing wrong with taking paracetamol if you do not go overboard with its usage. An overdose of this painkiller can permanently damage your liver. 

3. Opioids 

Opioids are addictive – meaning our body can become tolerant to them after a few episodes of certain side-effects and then become dependent on them. The most common potential side-effects of opioids include:

  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting 
  • Constipation 
  • Dry mouth 

4. Topical Pain Relievers 


You might wonder what can go wrong with a pain-relieving gel. However, there is a lot that can go wrong if you do not follow the directions on the packet. Although such cases are extremely rare, there have been instances wherein overuse of such gels has led to salicylate poisoning in people. Also, never use topical pain relievers with heating pads. This could result in faster absorption of the gel into the bloodstream and cause problems. 

When Should You See Your Doctor 

Following are the instances when you need to go see your pain doctor immediately concerning pain:

  • If the pain does not go away after two to three weeks 
  • If the pain is causing anxiety, depression, or stress 
  • If the pain becomes so unbearable that you cannot sleep or relax 
  • If it is interrupting your social or personal life to the extent that you are up for it anytime 
  • If the pain does not go away or get better even with the medications you have taken 

Pain Is Real but Preventive 

Pain is painful – it is often excruciating. However, it is the first sign by your body that something is wrong and needs your attention. It is physically challenging to go on with your life when you are suffering from any kind of pain. Nevertheless, if you know what pain reliever works for you, you are good to go unless you observe any of the above points.