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What are the Different Types of Painkillers?

By Josie Myers
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Painkiller medications are formally called analgesics. Pain is relieved either by blocking pain signals to the brain or by interfering with those brain signals. There are both narcotic and non-narcotic options that deal with varying degrees of pain.

A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) is a non-narcotic medication that offers pain relief while lowering fevers and working against inflammation. This type is called nonsteroidal to differentiate it from steroids, the most common form of anti-inflammatory medications. Some types of NSAIDs are aspirin, ibuprofen, and diclofenac.

The major side effect of NSAIDs is that they cause the blood to thin and can therefore affect clotting. Many heart patients take aspirin on a regular basis since it helps the blood move through the heart more efficiently. The thinning that helps on a daily basis makes for a dangerous situation when it comes to surgery. This means anyone taking aspirin regularly must discontinue their regiment before going into a planned surgery.

Acetaminophen is non-narcotic and paracetamol based. It is sold under names like Tylenol® and Panadol®. Like NSAIDs, acetaminophen is a painkiller and fever reducer. It does not reduce inflammation, which is the one major difference in symptom relief.

Acetaminophen is inexpensive and good for everyday pain relief, and it is considered a safe drug when used according to directions. It does not thin the blood like NSAIDs, but it can cause liver damage when taken improperly. Acetaminophen is often found in other drugs, like sinus medication and cold medicines, so those with liver issues or who are taking this drug on its own should check the labels of all medications for this ingredient.

Narcotic drugs are the strongest type of painkillers. Opioids are any kind of drug that has effects similar to opium, which means that they directly affect the central nervous system and confuse signals that are sent to the brain. They are often mistakenly called opiates, but opiates are actually made from the alkaloids in opium and are a type of opioid.

There are three divisions of these drugs: natural opiates, semi-synthetics, and synthetics. Natural opiates are made from opium and include morphine and codeine. They are used primarily in the medical field for post-surgical recovery and in a selective manner since they are highly addictive. Semi-synthetic opiates include the illegal drug heroin and the prescribed ocycodone. Fully synthetic opioids include pethidine, also known as alodan or demerol, methadone, and fentanyl.

All of the medically used painkillers are considered safe when used appropriately and under the supervision of medical staff. There are extreme concerns for developing addiction in any of these drugs, so patients will be watched carefully to avoid this whenever possible.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By oasis11 — On Aug 22, 2010

Bhutan-According to the Mayo Clinic, new opioid formulations are in the testing stages. These new potential opiate painkillers will remove the high which many patients experience and will also reduce the possibility of dependency.

They say that patients suffering from Cancer and those with back injuries, or those that recently had surgery are the highest risk for painkiller abuse. Even doctors are susceptible. According to the Mayo Clinic, 10 to 20% of doctors will experience painkiller addiction themselves during their career.

That is a really scary thought to think about a doctor suffering from painkillers addiction. That just shows you that painkillers abuse can happen to anyone.

By Bhutan — On Aug 22, 2010

A few years ago, I had a tooth extracted and was given Vicodin for the pain. Although this was a prescribed painkiller, I was so afraid of painkiller addiction that I didn't use any of the medication.

Instead I used Tylenol and that helped me. I also did not want to experience the side effects of painkillers.

These side effects include nausea and vomiting, constipation, dizziness, and dry mouth. In addition, painkillers can depress the central nervous system and in severe cases cause respiratory failure.

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