Analgesics: an overview

When pain strikes

Everyone has experienced pain. And that's a good thing, because it is a critical warning signal for survival. Imagine if a fracture was not painful or if a burn could only be uncovered through smell! The body needs pain to know that something is wrong.

Pain has a unique characteristic—it cannot be seen, it can only be felt. As long as it has not been expressed, others are not aware of it. Pain is most often acute, that is, short-lived, like tooth pain, sore throat, headache or earache. Fortunately, it is usually only transient.

Pain that lasts over time (more than three months) becomes an illness in itself. This is referred to as chronic pain. People who live with this reality must face a major challenge. In addition to affecting quality of life and well-being, chronic pain can lead to function loss, other physical disorders, and altered mental status.

Some of the many causes include the following:

  • diabetes
  • arthritis
  • shingles
  • cancer
  • fibromyalgia
Analgesics: an overview

Analgesics: rescue medication

When people feel pain, they want it to stop as soon as possible. Medications designed to relieve pain are called analgesics or commonly known as pain relievers. Some are sold over-the-counter, while others require a prescription. Because there are several analgesics available on the market, it can be difficult to see clearly and to understand the differences between the available options.

Several factors should be considered when choosing an analgesic: the person's age, health, medical history, other medications he/she takes, the type of pain and its causes, intensity, etc. This text focuses on the most common analgesics. 


The most well-known and popular analgesic, acetaminophen is also the safest. It is a basic pain reliever used in a multitude of contexts. It's advisable to keep some at home if transient pain occurs, such as a headache or sore throat. Moreover, hospitals use it as a first-line treatment. When it fails to relieve pain, other options are then used.

However, be careful! Although it seems harmless, acetaminophen can be dangerous if too much of it is taken or if it is taken too often. 


Nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drug (NSAID)

NSAIDs relieve both pain and inflammation. Some require a prescription, while others do not. They are very effective and are particularly useful with an inflammatory component, such as an injury, toothache, menstrual cramps or arthritis, for instance. Ibuprofen is a well-known example of this drug class.

NSAIDs should be used with caution, as they have an increased risk of side effects, especially of the digestive tract (e.g. stomach aches or abdominal pain, nausea, constipation). Moreover, many people must be careful or abstain from taking it because of their health, medical history, and the medications they take. It's always better to consult a doctor or pharmacist before taking an NSAID.

It should be noted that aspirin is an NSAID that was once widely used. Today, it is used less frequently because other options exist against pain that are just as effective, but safer.  


Opioids, also called narcotics or opiates, include medications such as codeine, morphine, oxycodone, and hydromorphone. Their use is usually reserved only for more severe pain, such as pain related to serious injury, surgery or cancer.

It is preferable to use them for a short period at the lowest effective dose, since there is a significant risk of side effects (e.g. drowsiness, dizziness, confusion, nausea, and constipation). Additionally, they can be habit-forming or cause addiction when taken for a long time. Therefore, their use requires closer monitoring. 

Other options

A number of medications have proven to be effective in relieving pain without being considered analgesics per se. For example, certain antiepileptics, antidepressants, and antihypertensives are used to prevent and relieve chronic pain associated with a number of conditions: migraines, fibromyalgia, post-shingles pain, etc. There are numerous situations and options, and each case is unique.

If you experience pain, don't suffer in silence. The first thing to do is to speak to a trusted healthcare expert. Don't hesitate to speak to your pharmacist if you have any questions about analgesics use. 


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Analgesics: an overview

Sometimes mild, other times unbearable, pain is part of the life course of human life. Fortunately, there are analgesics to relieve it!