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Understanding Pain Medication: What You Need to Know Now

Pain medication - The Dearing Clinic

Pain medication is a type of drug formulated to relieve or reduce pain that include over-the-counter and prescription options. Prior to using pain medication, it’s important to consult with your healthcare provider regarding the side effects, long-term impact of use, and potential natural pain relief options available to you.

In our modern world full of ailments, turning to pain medication is a common solution for those seeking effective pain management. 

But it’s important to understand that taking pain medication isn’t necessarily the quick fix we’ve been led to believe. In fact, it’s critical for not only your immediate relief but also your overall health and longevity to truly take the time to understand the effects of different types of pain medications so you can make an informed decision about your best course of action.

Whether it's to alleviate pain and discomfort associated with an injury, surgery, or an ongoing condition, before you pick up that pill bottle, take a few moments to understand what pain medication really is, how it works, and what considerations and alternatives you should know about. Remember, you’re the hero of your own health — and that means truly knowing and feeling confident about your treatment plan for all of your health related concerns, both big and small. 

So, let’s dive into the world of pain medication so you can approach your next step with full understanding and confidence.

An Overview of Pain Medication

There’s no denying that the use of pain medication plays a major role in modern healthcare. But to truly understand its significance, we must consider the historical context of pain management.

In truth, the development of pain medication has come with its own set of challenges. For example, issues such as opioid misuse and addiction have sparked nationwide debates on the appropriate use of these powerful pain relievers, while healthcare professionals are continuously striving to strike a balance between effectively managing pain for patients while minimizing the risks of misuse and addiction. 

This ongoing and growing concern has led to advancements in pain management protocols and the development of natural pain relief strategies to help ensure patient safety and well-being. Yet, as a nation, we still tend to turn to pain medications. In fact, research has shown that almost 54 percent of women and 46 percent of men use OTC pain medication regularly. 

Even more shocking? Between 17 and 23 percent of all Americans report using over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication each week! Meanwhile, between 2015 and 2018, almost 11 percent of all American adults used one or more prescription pain medications in a 30-day period, with almost 6 percent sharing they used one or more prescription opioids. And, unfortunately, prescription opioid use only increased with the age of those surveyed.

Now, you may be wondering what the problem is, especially if the pain medication usage is short-term and truly needed to aid in a person’s recovery. To answer this question, we must first answer this question: What, exactly, is pain medication and how does it work?

What Is Pain Medication?

Pain medications, also known as analgesics, are drugs formulated to relieve or reduce pain. They range from OTC options to prescribed pharmaceuticals and work by targeting your nervous system to change the way pain signals are sent to and received from your brain. 

While it’s true that pain medication can provide needed relief, it's essential to strike a balance between its benefits and risks. This includes understanding dosage, potential side effects, and the importance of monitoring for dependence or addiction.

Additionally, the effectiveness of pain medication often depends on the type and severity of the pain you experience. For example, OTC options such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen are often used to help manage mild to moderate pain, while more severe or chronic pain often results in using stronger prescription medications such as opioids. And the different types of medications each have their own mechanism of action.

Keep reading to learn more about how different pain medications work to help manage or relieve pain.

How Pain Medication Works

When you consider how pain medication works, it’s important to note that all pain medications are classified into different categories based on their mechanisms of action (or the way they work to relieve pain). Some common types include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which reduce inflammation and pain by inhibiting the enzymes in your brain responsible for producing prostaglandins.

  • Opioids, which work by binding to specific receptors in your brain and spinal cord to decrease your perception of pain.

  • Acetaminophen, which is believed to reduce pain by inhibiting an enzyme in your brain that produces pain and fever-causing chemicals.

Understanding these classifications is essential not only for healthcare providers to make informed decisions when prescribing medication to patients but also for you to understand how the medication is working in your body.

In short, all pain medication works by interfering with the way pain signals are transmitted and perceived by your brain. And different types of pain medication target different parts of your nervous system, including your brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves.

One great example of this is nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which work by reducing inflammation often associated with pain. By inhibiting specific enzymes responsible for inflammation, NSAIDs help reduce both pain and swelling in affected areas. 

Meanwhile, opioids have a totally different mechanism of action. Opioids, such as morphine or oxycodone, bind to opioid receptors in your brain and spinal cord to block pain signals and provide pain relief. But opioids come with a higher risk of dependence and potential side effects, meaning you have to exercise extreme caution when considering their use.

Additionally, it’s important to note that while pain medications can be effective in managing various types of pain, they also come with their own set of limitations and considerations. For example, prolonged use of NSAIDs often lead to gastrointestinal issues, including the development of ulcers or bleeding. That’s why patients with a history of stomach problems may need to explore natural pain relief options to avoid worsening their condition. Likewise, excessive acetaminophen use is linked to liver damage.

On the other hand, opioids, despite their strong pain-relieving properties, come with a high potential for abuse and addiction. As such, healthcare providers must carefully assess their patient’s risk factors for substance misuse before prescribing opioids and monitor their usage closely to prevent abuse or overdose.

Types of Pain Medication

Now that you know more about how pain medications work, let’s take a look at the different types of pain medication, including OTC options, prescription pharmaceuticals, and narcotics.

1. Over-the-Counter (OTC) Pain Medications

OTC pain medications are medications you can purchase without a prescription and are generally used to provide relief for mild to moderate pain. Examples include non-prescription-strength NSAIDs such as ibuprofen (Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve), as well as acetaminophen (Tylenol).

While they’re generally regarded as safe when taken as directed (e.g., for short periods of time for acute issues such as to relieve suffering or reduce a fever quickly, generally within 30 to 45 minutes), they do have side effects. It's important to carefully read and follow the instructions on the packaging. 

If pain persists or worsens, it's important to discontinue use and consult a healthcare professional for further evaluation and guidance, as these medications are known to deplete key nutrients including B vitamins, vitamin C, and zinc as well as complicate other organ function in general, such as impacting your digestive system, kidneys, and liver

2. Pharmaceutical Pain Medications

For more severe pain, your doctor may prescribe pharmaceutical pain relievers. This type of pain medicine comes in various forms, including tablets, capsules, or injections, and examples include stronger NSAIDs and opioids.

It's critical to follow the prescribed dosage and ensure regular communication with the prescribing healthcare professional to monitor the effectiveness and potential side effects of these medications. 

Additionally, due to the harmful side effects of these painkillers, it’s important to discuss natural pain relief options with your doctor prior to taking pharmaceutical pain medication to ensure you’ve thoroughly considered safer options first. Some of the safer pain relief options include natural remedies such as Chinese skullcap, frankincense (Boswellia), ginger, vitamin c, phosphatidylcholine, and alpha lipoic acid. For a more comprehensive list, check out this list of 15 natural pain relief solutions.

So, why are natural pain relief solutions a better choice? Let’s take a look at some of the specific pharmaceutical medications and their side effects. 

One of the most commonly prescribed medications for nerve pain is gabapentin, which is arguably the most prescribed nerve pain medication. Not only is it known to cause lightheadedness, but it’s common to become immune to its effects, often requiring increasingly higher dosages. 

Gabapentin is known to treat the symptoms of neuropathy, so though it may provide some temporary relief, the neuropathy continues to progress. As a result, the medication becomes less effective over time. Additionally, it’s known to reduce nerve firing throughout the brain, resulting in brain fog and reduced cognitive function. And research has even shown that those taking gabapentin are at an increased risk of developing dementia!

There’s another more specific form of prescription pain medication we should discuss: narcotics. Also known as opioids or opiate analgesics, narcotics are a class of pain medications derived from the opium poppy or synthetic versions of opium. Generally reserved for severe pain that’s not effectively managed by other types of medication, narcotics work by binding to opioid receptors in your brain, spinal cord, and other parts of your body.

It’s important to note that opioids disrupt pain signaling and induce slight euphoria. But constantly activating the systems in the brain that cause euphoria is not only very addicting, but this state of brain function will disrupt the rhythms of the brain waves that you use to process important information and elicit emotional responses. 

The problem with this is that you need these feelings to register in order to have an appropriate response to your environment. If you experience blunted feelings that would lead you away from danger or toward a reward, then you can also lose the feelings that motivate you to achieve things in life. And slowing down the firing of emotional stimuli have far reaching consequences to your reflexes and your natural rhythms of movement. 

When these medications are used for even a short period, you will see these disrupted rhythms in your gut function first, as opioids slow down gastrointestinal motility. This disrupts your gut microbiome first by allowing food to sit, stagnate, and not fully digest, often resulting in fungal, yeast, and pathogenic bacterial overgrowth that disrupts your immune system and eventually affects your brain. The result? It’s common to experience different movement and/or mood disorders after short- or long-term use of these medications.

In addition to causing a disconnect between your brain and body, taking opioids for pain management has been linked to a deficiency in folic acid, vitamin C, iron, and potassium. 

3. Muscle Relaxers

In addition to the pain medications we’ve reviewed above, muscle relaxers such as baclofen, cyclobenzaprine, and tizanidine are often prescribed to help manage pain due to muscle tension or spasms, often to help provide lower back pain relief. These medications impact your central nervous system and specifically target the communication between your nerves and muscles. 

More specifically, most muscle relaxers act as central nervous system depressants, meaning they dampen the signals sent from your brain to your muscles, which helps to reduce painful muscle contractions and stiffness. 

While muscle relaxers are generally regarded as mild and less dangerous than pharmaceutical pain medication, the truth of the matter is that muscle relaxers are known to deplete your nutrient stores, resulting in a variety of health concerns. 

For example, in addition to causing side effects ranging from drowsiness, dizziness, and blurred vision to allergic reactions and liver toxicity, muscle relaxers (specifically centrally acting muscle relaxants) can inhibit magnesium absorption and increase its excretion from your body. And because magnesium is a natural muscle relaxer, magnesium depletion can contribute to muscle weakness, cramps, and spasms, exacerbating the very symptoms these medications are intended to alleviate! 

Additionally, prolonged use of muscle relaxers can lead to deficiencies in other vital nutrients, including calcium and potassium, further impacting overall muscle health. This nutrient depletion can occur through various mechanisms, including interfering with your body’s ability to absorb nutrients in your gastrointestinal tract or by affecting your ability to maintain proper nutrient balance. 

Nutrients depleted by pain medication - The Dearing Clinic

Other Side Effects of Pain Medication

As you now know, just as with any other medication, pain medication comes with side effects. Some of the most common side effects include nausea, drowsiness, constipation, and, in some cases, allergic reactions. And while these side effects are often temporary, long-term use only sets your body up for harm. In fact, long-term use of certain pain medications, particularly NSAIDs, increase your risk of experiencing gastrointestinal ulcers, kidney problems, or even cardiovascular issues. 

If you’re currently taking pain medication of any kind, it’s important to remain aware of potential signs of adverse reactions, such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, or severe allergic reactions. If any of these symptoms occur, seek medical attention immediately.

Why You Should Consider Natural Pain Relief Alternatives

While there will be times in your life that you may need to utilize pain medication, it’s important to explore natural pain relief alternatives. Here’s why: Natural pain relief methods can complement short-term necessary medication use or be used as highly effective standalone approaches for managing pain.

Methods such as physical therapy, acupuncture, contrast therapy, and herbal remedies have shown significant promise in alleviating pain and promoting overall well-being without the potential risks associated with medication. Meanwhile, The Dearing Clinic offers great natural pain relief therapies in place of pain medication, including treatments for both nerve and joint pain restoration. You can contact us to learn more about our offerings, and to learn more about other effective natural pain relief options, check out our article: 15 Best Solutions for Natural Pain Relief


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