An analgesic (colloquially known as a painkiller) is any member of the diverse group of drugs used to relieve pain (achieve analgesia). This derives from Greek an-, “without”, and -algia, “pain”. Analgesic drugs act in various ways on the peripheral and central nervous system; they include paracetamol (acetaminophen), the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as the salicylates, narcotic drugs such as morphine, synthetic drugs with narcotic properties such as tramadol, and various others. Some other classes of drugs not normally considered analgesics are used to treat neuropathic pain syndromes; these include tricyclic antidepressants and anticonvulsants.
The major classes
Paracetamol and NSAIDs
The exact mechanism of action of paracetamol is uncertain, but it appears to be acting centrally. Aspirin and the NSAIDs inhibit cyclooxygenase, leading to a decrease in prostaglandin production; this improves pain and also inflammation (in contrast to paracetamol and the opioids).
Paracetamol has few side effects, but dosing is limited by possible hepatotoxicity (potential for liver damage). NSAIDs may predispose to peptic ulcers, renal failure, allergic reactions, and hearing loss. They may also increase the risk of hemorrhage by affecting platelet function. The use of certain NSAIDs in children under 16 suffering from viral illness may contribute to Reye’s syndrome.
These drugs have been derived from NSAIDs. The cyclooxygenase enzyme inhibited by NSAIDs was discovered to have at least 2 different versions: COX1 and COX2. Research suggested that most of the adverse effects of NSAIDs were mediated by blocking the COX1 (constitutive) enzyme, with the analgesic effects being mediated by the COX2 (inducible) enzyme. The COX2 inhibitors were thus developed to inhibit only the COX2 enzyme (traditional NSAIDs block both versions in general). These drugs (such as rofecoxib and celecoxib) are equally effective analgesics when compared with NSAIDs, but cause less gastrointestinal hemorrhage in particular. However post-launch data indicated increased risk of cardiac and cerebrovascular events with these drugs, and rofecoxib was subsequently withdrawn from the market. The role for this class of drug is currently hotly debated.
Opiates and morphinomimetics
Morphine, the archetypal opioid, and various other substances (e.g. pethidine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, diamorphine) all exert a similar influence on the cerebral opioid receptor system. Tramadol and buprenorphine are thought to be partial agonists of the opioid receptors. Dosing of all opioids may be limited by opioid toxicity (confusion, myoclonic jerks and pinpoint pupils), but there is no dose ceiling in patients who tolerate this.
Opioids, while very effective analgesics, may have some unpleasant side-effects. Up to 1 in 3 patients starting morphine may experience nausea and vomiting (generally relieved by a short course of antiemetics). Pruritus (itching) may require switching to a different opioid. Constipation occurs in almost all patients on opioids, and laxatives (lactulose, macrogol-containing or co-danthramer) are typically co-prescribed.
When used appropriately, opioids and similar narcotic analgesics are safe and effective, carrying relatively little risk of addiction. Occasionally, gradual tapering of the dose is required to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
In patients with chronic or neuropathic pain, various other substances may have analgesic properties. Tricyclic antidepressants, especially amitriptyline, have been shown to improve pain in what appears to be a central manner. The exact mechanism of carbamazepine, gabapentin and pregabalin is similarly unclear, but these anticonvulsants are used to treat neuropathic pain with modest success.
Specific forms and uses
Analgesics are frequently used in combination, such as the paracetamol and codeine preparations found in many non-prescription pain relievers. They can also be found in combination with vasoconstrictor drugs such as pseudoephedrine for sinus-related preparations, or with antihistamine drugs for allergy sufferers.
The use of paracetamol concurrently with opiates has been shown to have beneficial synergistic effects and it is generally recommended that they are prescribed together.
Topical or systemic
Topical analgesia is generally recommended to avoid systemic side-effects. Painful joints, for example, may be treated with an ibuprofen- or diclofenac-containing gel; capsaicin also is used topically. Lidocaine and steroids may be injected into painful joints for longer-term pain relief. Lidocaine is also used for painful mouth sores and to numb areas for dental work and minor medical procedures.
Tetrahydrocannabinol and some other cannabinoids, either from the Cannabis sativa plant or synthetic, have analgesic properties, although the use of cannabis derivatives is illegal in many countries. Other psychotropic analgesic agents include ketamine (an NMDA receptor antagonist), clonidine and other α2-adrenoreceptor agonists, and mexiletine and other local anaesthetic analogues.
In the United States in recent years, however, there has been a wave of new addictions to prescription narcotics such as oxycodone (OxyContin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab etc.) when available in pure formulations as opposed to combined with other medications (as in Percocet which contains both oxycodone and acetaminophen/paracetamol).
- Cancer pain relief and palliative care. Report of a WHO expert committee [World Health Organization Technical Report Series, 804] . Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 1990. pp. 1-75. ISBN 92-4-120804-X.
- Bandolier pain site (Oxford pain group)