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Non-opioid analgesics are medications that are non-narcotic and are used for the management of mild or moderate pain. Some examples of non-opioid analgesics include acetaminophen; all non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, ketoprofen, diclofenac, and aspirin; and some drugs called adjuvant analgesics, such as antidepressants, that are used for pain relief despite having a different primary intent. Many non-opioid analgesics also act as antipyretics, or fever reducers. With the exception of adjuvant analgesics, medicines classified as non-opioid analgesics are often available without a prescription.
Opioid analgesics, often referred to as narcotic or controlled substances, act on an individual's nervous system to influence opioid receptors that signal moderate or severe pain. In contrast, non-opioid analgesics do not interact with opioid receptors and tend to have a milder pain-dampening effect. Unlike opioids, these medications will not result in physical dependence or addiction. They reduce pain at the peripheral site by blocking prostaglandins, which are responsible for tissue inflammation as well as for alerting the brain to injury through pain signals.
One disadvantage of non-steroidal analgesics is that they tend to result in serious side effects with long-term use. These effects can include gastrointestinal difficulties or damage to an individual's kidneys or liver. Opioid drugs can cause side effects such as nausea, constipation, or mental cloudiness, but some experts believe that these effects can be minimal with appropriate medication management.
Another issue related to non-opioid analgesics is known as the ceiling effect, which refers to the ceiling or top limit of pain management potential. At a certain point, increasing the drug's dose fails to increase its beneficial effects. For this reason, such medications are appropriate only for short-term use or with pain that ranges from mild to moderate. Non-opioid analgesics are sometimes used in conjunction with opioid medications for severe or chronic pain management.
Acetaminophen is known by a variety of trade and generic names, including Tylenol®, Panadol® or paracetamol, Tempra®, Pain-eze®, and Feverall®. Brand names for ibuprofen include Motrin®, Advil®, and Midol®. Aspirin is sometimes sold under trade names such as Bufferin®, Anacin®, or Genacote®.
The scientific term analgesic refers to any medication intended for pain relief that does not also induce unconsciousness. Medicines in this drug category can often provide a temporary cessation of pain or fever related to an injury, illness, or internal dysfunction. These drugs can mask symptoms of illness or injury but do not actually treat the root cause.