Analgesics are medications that relieve pain. They work either by reducing inflammation or by changing the way the brain processes and perceives pain. Side effects include heartburn, nausea, and headaches.

Some types of analgesics are available over the counter. However, stronger variants are available only with a prescription. This is because strong analgesics are more likely to cause side effects such as dependence, addiction, and withdrawal symptoms.

This article outlines what analgesics are, including their uses, the different types available, and how they work. It also discusses the risks and side effects of analgesics and provides information on their availability.

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Analgesics are pain-relieving medications. These medications relieve pain but do not address its underlying cause. Typically, they work either by reducing inflammation at the site of pain or by changing the brain’s perception of pain.

Analgesics are available in many forms, including:

  • oral medications such as tablets, capsules, and liquids
  • topical creams, gels, and ointments
  • suppositories

People take analgesics to alleviate many types of pain, including, but not limited to, the following:

There are three main types of analgesics:

  • simple, non-opioid analgesics
  • compound analgesics
  • opioid analgesics, or “narcotics”

Doctors typically recommend that a person try simple, non-opioid analgesics before trying compound or opioid analgesics.

Below are some examples of the different types of analgesia.

Simple, non-opioid analgesics

Simple, non-opioid analgesics are the most common form of analgesic. This group includes acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as:

Compound analgesics

Compound analgesics are medications containing a non-opioid along with an opioid, such as low strength codeine.

Examples include:

  • co-codamol
  • co-codaprin
  • co-dydramol

Opioid analgesics

Opioid analgesics can be natural or synthetic. These are the strongest type of analgesics. Examples include:

Different types of analgesics work in different ways.

NSAIDs work by reducing inflammation at the site of pain. They can also reduce fever.

Opioids work by activating opioid receptors in the central and peripheral nervous systems. This reduces neuronal activity, thus reducing the transmission of pain impulses. Ultimately, opioids dull pain perception and increase feelings of pleasure. These drugs are beneficial for short-term pain but can be addictive if a person takes them for extended periods.

People should take prescription analgesics according to their prescribing doctor’s instructions and should take over-the-counter (OTC) medications according to the instructions on the product label.

Analgesics are available in many forms, including:

  • caplets, capsules, and tablets
  • oral solutions such as drops or syrups
  • topical creams, gels, or patches
  • rectal suppositories
  • injections

People should speak with their doctor or pharmacist if they are unsure how to take their analgesic medication. A healthcare professional will also be able to advise on the medication dosage, duration, and frequency.

Taking non-opioid analgesics for short-term pain is associated with minimal risks, as long as a person takes them correctly. However, some people may experience side effects, especially if taking the medication at high doses or for extended periods.

It is very rare for people to become addicted to simple, non-opioid medications such as acetaminophen or NSAIDs. However, people can become dependent on opioids. Analgesic dependence is when the body becomes accustomed to an analgesic to the extent that the drug becomes less effective. As a result, people require higher doses to experience the same pain-relieving effect.

Opioid analgesics can also cause addiction and substance use disorder. As such, doctors will prescribe the lowest possible dose to effectively manage a person’s pain. They will also monitor the person carefully and periodically reassess their medications and dosages.

Some possible signs of substance use disorder are:

  • taking drugs in larger quantities than the doctor has prescribed
  • taking drugs when it is dangerous to do so, such as when driving
  • being unable to cut down on usage
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms when stopping use

Like most other medications, analgesics can cause side effects. These may range in severity from mild to severe.

Less serious side effects may include:

More serious possible side effects include:

Compared to simple, non-opioid analgesics, opioid analgesics are more likely to cause side effects. Possible side effects include those listed above, as well as the following:

A person should always take their medications according to their doctor’s instructions and should speak with their doctor if they experience any side effects.

People who are taking analgesics should avoid drinking alcohol, as the two substances can interact.

It is important that a person who is taking opioids does not suddenly stop taking them, as this can result in withdrawal. Instead, a person should discuss tapering off the medication under their doctor’s supervision.

Below is some information on the different types of analgesics and their availability.

  • Simple non-opioid analgesics: Most of these medications are available over the counter, but some of the stronger NSAIDs may require a prescription.
  • Compound analgesics: These medications are available only via prescription.
  • Opioid analgesics: These medications are available only via prescription.

Analgesics are medications that relieve pain. There are three main types: non-opioid analgesics, opioid analgesics, and compound analgesics that combine the two previous forms.

Most non-opioid analgesics work by reducing inflammation at the site of pain. In comparison, opioid analgesics work by interacting with opioid receptors to change the way the brain processes and perceives pain.

Many non-opioid analgesics are available over the counter, whereas opioids are available only via prescription. The latter have a higher likelihood of causing dependence and addiction. People taking opioid medications require careful monitoring and a regular review of their medications to reduce the risk of these side effects.