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How Do Pain Relievers Work? TED-Ed Video

Here’s a short video (less than 5 minutes) about pain relieving medications and how they work. There’s some interesting science here, important to understand even if you do not take medications like these. Check it out!

Here’s a summary and discussion of the key points:

  • The video mentions nociceptors as ‘pain receptors’ – but that’s too simplistic. There are receptors all over our bodies (especially in skin) that are stimulated by either mechanical pressure, temperature, or chemicals. Nociceptors detect the same things as other receptors – but they’re only activated at higher thresholds – so if something is hot enough, for example, to stimulate a nociceptor, the signal to the brain might be interpreted as pain. Of course, your brain uses many different sources of information (expectation, experience, emotions, etc.) to put that signal into context before it decides that you should feel pain. Pain is always more complex, even when it’s not “chronic”.
  • When you have an injury, pain isn’t usually caused by the “injury” itself (damaged tissue) – rather, the damage (or infection, or whatever) causes chemicals to be released, which act to lower the pain threshold. Therefore, when you move or touch the painful area, it sets off nociceptors more easily.
  • This might make more sense if you’ve ever had a mild ankle sprain or muscle strain – you probably didn’t feel pain until you moved or put pressure on the injury. If it was actually the damage that “caused” pain, then you would probably have constant pain until the damage healed – but fortunately, it’s not like that. Sunburns are another good example. They may hurt only a little, but when you touch them… ouch.
  • Again, when cells are damaged, many different types of chemicals are released (in the video, prostaglandins are discussed) which can lower the threshold of activation for nociceptors.
  • Ibuprofen and Aspirin work by either inactivating or blocking these chemicals. The medicine circulates throughout your whole body, and should work as long as it can get to the damaged tissues.

Understanding how this works, or how any medicine works, is helpful for many reasons. Since pain is very complex, especially persistent or “chronic” pain, it should be no surprise that many of these medications are only effective for certain types of pain.

Of course, there are many other types of pain medications, and new ones are being researched as we speak. How pain “works” is also being researched vigorously by scientists all over the world, which helps tremendously in designing new treatments.

Although pain is still a huge problem in healthcare, things are looking good for the future.

Should you take them?

Good question! That’s why there’s a whole article on that question.

Read: ‘Should I use painkillers or anti-inflammatories?


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