The truth about painkillers

Whether you’re taking prescription pain medicine for a short period or to ease long-term pain, you’ve likely heard about the good and bad side of painkillers. Sometimes, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. Learning how painkillers work in your body is important to help you make the right choice about when and how much to take.

Today we put to bed three of the most persistent myths about painkillers.

Myth 1: It’s easy to become addicted to prescription pain medicine
The answer to this depends on your own personal risk of addiction. Prescription drugs such as morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone and codeine often contain opiates. Opiates are highly effective at reducing physical pain but can give the taker a sense of euphoria, which can become psychologically addictive. As a safety measure, in Australia anyone wishing to buy painkillers containing opiates is required by law to have a prescription from a licensed doctor. If you use painkillers as instructed, your risk of becoming addicted is low.

Editor’s Note: In light of recent information from the Therapeutic Goods Administration, please see the following:

From 1 February 2018, medicines that contain low-dose codeine will no longer be available without prescription in pharmacies.

Your pharmacist will be able to help you choose from a range of effective products that do not require a prescription. If you have strong or chronic (long-lasting) pain you will need to consult your doctor, and if medicines are part of your treatment, a prescription may be needed.

Why is access to low-dose codeine-containing medicines changing?

Some Australians don’t realise how much harm codeine can cause.

Codeine is an opioid drug closely related to morphine and, like morphine, is derived from opium poppies. Codeine can cause opioid tolerance, dependence, addiction, poisoning and in high doses, death. Regular use of medicines containing codeine, for example for chronic pain, has led to some consumers becoming addicted to codeine without realising it. The risks associated with codeine use are too high without oversight from a doctor.

Most Australians are unaware that over-the-counter medicines containing codeine for pain relief offer very little additional benefit when compared with – medicines without codeine. The use of such medicines however, is associated with high health risks, such as developing tolerance or physical dependence on codeine.

Further information on the reasons for the change can be found on the TGA website. 

Myth 2: It’s better to avoid taking them altogether
Knowing that there’s the potential to abuse prescription painkillers can give you the sense that it’s better to avoid taking them at all. While there is a small element of risk associated with taking strong medicine, they would not be available for us if they were not helpful.

If you are suffering from acute pain, either following surgery or to treat a long-term condition, you have a legitimate reason to take painkillers. In addition to treating pain, some chronic  sufferers do see improvements in their functioning after taking the medication.

For most people, however, prescription pain medicine should be a short-term treatment only.

Myth 3: The more you take the better they work
This belief revolves around both prescription and non-prescription drugs, but it is inaccurate. Knowing how painkillers work in your body helps us understand why correct dosage is important.

After being administered, painkillers travel through your circulatory system, racing to target pain receptors before the organs snare and neutralise them. After the drug is swallowed, it passes through the stomach, into the bloodstream and through the liver, where some of it is neutralised.

What remains of the drug travels around the body until it locates an area where the pain response is in full swing and settles there to help block the transmission of pain signals. Painkillers reach their maximum effect within one or two hours. This short Ted Ed video gives a great explanation.

More of a pill does not equal better effectiveness. For short-term pain, taking two pills may be effective when treating chronic or severe pain, such as an injury. However, taking too much can backfire.

Some research suggests that overuse of painkillers sensitises part of the nervous system and changes the way your brain and spinal cord interprets pain signals.

In other words, you can grow a tolerance to the medication over time, meaning you’ll need more and more.

If you are concerned about how a pain medication may affect you, speak to your doctor.

This article has been updated to include more information about codeine.

Related articles:
Seven essential items for your medicine cabinet
Are your medicines killing you?
This little app keeps track of your medicines

Written by Amelia Theodorakis

A writer and communications specialist with eight years’ in startups, SMEs, not-for-profits and corporates. Interests and expertise in gender studies, history, finance, banking, human interest, literature and poetry.

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