Pain relievers (analgesics)

Analgesics are medications used to treat pain. One type of commonly used analgesic is acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol®), which is available over the counter without a prescription. Other types of analgesics are known as narcotic analgesics, or opioids. Opioids are available by prescription only. Some opioids are combined with acetaminophen for additional pain relief.1

Common analgesics include:2

  • Acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol®)
  • Tramadol (brand name Ultram®)
  • Codeine
  • Hydrocodone ER (brand names include Hysingla ER® and Zohydro ER®)
  • Oxycodone ER (brand name OxyContin®)
  • Hydrocodone/acetaminophen combination (brand names include Lorcet®, Lortab®, Norco®, and Vicodin®)
  • Meperidine (brand name Demerol®)
  • Methadone (brand names include Dolophine® and Methadose®)

Uses of analgesics

Analgesics are commonly used to relieve pain symptoms. Doctors may prescribe analgesics to relieve pain and inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Typically, analgesics will be recommended during flare-ups, and they are usually used as a short-term method of pain relief. Analgesics may also be recommended for RA patients who cannot tolerate the side effects of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs.1

Analgesics can be highly effective at reducing pain during a flare-up in RA. However, they do not stop disease progression, so they are not used alone to treat RA.2

How analgesics work

When you experience pain, it is because the nerve endings in your body send signals to the brain which causes the pain sensation. Analgesics work by blocking that signal between the nerve endings and the brain, therefore reducing the pain sensation.2

Opioids work by attaching themselves to receptors in your brain cells, which change the signals released to your brain, diminishing the pain sensation. Opioids also boost pleasure sensations, which can make them highly addictive.3

Analgesics start to work quickly on pain, often taking effect within 30 minutes of taking the medication. It is important to follow your doctor’s directions when taking prescription analgesics, particularly opioids, and take them exactly as prescribed.2,3

Possible side effects

The most commonly reported side effect from analgesics is upset stomach. Side effects may also include dizziness, nausea, headaches, kidney problems, or fluid retention and swelling. Other side effects include an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.2

Opioids, also an analgesic, can carry even greater risks than acetaminophen.2 At low doses, opioids can cause drowsiness and constipation, but higher doses may slow your breathing and heart rate, which could lead to death. The increased pleasure sensation that accompanies opioids can also lead to addiction.3

Other precautions

Analgesics—especially opioids—can interact negatively with other medications, so always notify your doctor about all the medications you are taking.2,4

Drugs that may interfere with opioids include:4

  • Alcohol
  • Anti-seizure medications
  • Certain antibiotics
  • Certain antidepressants
  • Certain anti-fungals
  • Certain antiretroviral drugs (used for HIV infection)
  • Sleeping pills
  • Certain psychiatric disorder medications
  • Muscle relaxers
  • Sedatives
  • Other opioids

Mixing these medications with opioids may increase the likelihood of dangerous side effects, such as slowed breathing and decreased heart rate. Signs of an emergency that should not be ignored include:4

  • Very small pupils that remain the same size when light is shined into them
  • Losing consciousness
  • Very slow breathing
  • Blue or purple lips and/or fingernails

Seek emergency care immediately if these symptoms occur.4

Written by: Krista Scavone | Last reviewed: June 2018.
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