The Problem with Painkillers

Pain is unpleasant and sometimes a pill can be the difference between bearable and unbearable suffering.

No simple description of pain can be very useful. There are many causes and many types. Pain can be acute or chronic; it can be stabbing, diffuse, sharp or dull, dragging or intermittent. The quality of pain is very helpful to an acupuncturist in diagnosing a patient’s condition and formulating treatment.

When there is an injury, pain receptors send pain messages to the brain. Painkilling medication works by inhibiting these messages, either at their source or in the brain itself. However there is a point of view, and one that is in tune with my treatment philosophy, that pain messages should be listened to and heeded. Rest or a change in habit can give long term relief and resolution of pain symptoms but may take longer to provide relief than medication.

Most painkillers are derived from two naturally occurring substances: aspirin and opium. There are a number of effects associated with taking painkillers other than the relief of pain, and these effects are often greater with long term use.

Ibuprofen can cause a number of side effects. For this reason, take lowest possible dose of ibuprofen for the shortest possible time needed to control your symptoms. Common side effects of ibuprofen include: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, indigestion and abdominal pain. Taking it for extended periods can increase risk of stroke and heart attack.

High dose side effects of aspirin include ulcers, stomach bleeding and tinnitus.

Paracetamol has no anti-inflammatory effect but can reduce temperature and relieve mild pain. It is generally thought to have few side effects but overdosing can cause severe liver and kidney damage.

Opiate painkillers can be addictive. They can cause side effects including constipation, drowsiness, dry mouth, and difficulty urinating

Endorphins are neurotransmitters that are our body’s own opiates. “Endorphin” is a contraction of “endogenous morphine”. They are produced when we experience stress. Endorphin release from neurons increases during exercise and this is thought to promote a feeling of well-being. Endorphin release has also been linked with acupuncture, providing natural pain relief during treatment.

The relationship between our own pain and our use of painkillers is a personal one and I believe that is as it should be. However, I do ask my patients during each treatment session how many painkillers they have taken since the last session as this is a fairly objective measure of how effective treatment is. If a patient is taking fewer painkillers it is usually a sign of an improvement in their condition.

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