SciTech

HealthTalk: Painkillers

Non-narcotic painkillers include the compound acetaminophen and do not cause altered mental states, as narcotic drugs occasionally do. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Photo Editor) Non-narcotic painkillers include the compound acetaminophen and do not cause altered mental states, as narcotic drugs occasionally do. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Photo Editor) The large, round seed pod of the opium poppy plant can be harvested for different uses. Chemicals extracted from the plant are used in the production of painkilling medications. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) The large, round seed pod of the opium poppy plant can be harvested for different uses. Chemicals extracted from the plant are used in the production of painkilling medications. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

“Keep out of reach of children” is most often the first warning that appears on the labels of painkillers. Painkillers, or analgesics, are drugs that block the pain receptors in your body from sending neurotransmitters, or pain signals, to your brain. These analgesics range from mild over-the-counter drugs such as acetaminophen — the most common ingredient in Tylenol and other pain medications — to the extremely potent, with examples being morphine or hydrocodone. Too high of a dosage or improper usage of these drugs can cause serious side effects or even death.

Pain is a natural reaction the body has when part of its tissue is damaged. When this occurs, a process of signal transmission from the initial pain receptors to the brain begins, which is called nociception. First, the pain receptors of the damaged tissue release a series of chemicals such as serotonin, histamine, and potassium that act as chemical messengers from the pain site to the brain, according to www.uic.edu. When released, these neurotransmitters travel to the spinal cord and up to the brain, where they are then interpreted as pain and prompt the physical feeling of discomfort.

Painkillers are classified into two different types: non-narcotics and narcotics. Non-narcotic medication includes over-the-counter forms such as asprin and Tylenol, with the active ingredients ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Side effects of non-narcotics tend to be mild and do not cause brain-alterating states, like their narcotic counterparts. Narcotics, on the other hand, are extremely dangerous and can have serious side effects due to the breaking of the blood-brain barrier when consumed. This means that the active chemicals in the painkillers can enter the brain. When this barrier is broken, the narcotics have a direct impact on the central nervous system and can cause mood and behavioral changes, according to www.webmd.com.

One class of narcotic is opiates. Opiates are natural alkaloids taken from the resin of poppy seeds and are the base for well-known painkillers such as morphine, heroin, and, of course, opium. Since this class of drug breaks the blood-brain barrier, the drug itself travels to your brain directly and activates the part of your brain responsible for feeling pleasure. This causes a sudden release of dopamine and endorphins which can cause a “high,” or a relaxed state. An article on www.teens.drugabuse.gov states that these drugs don’t block the natural opioid receptors in our body, but rather alter the brain’s perception of pain by blocking neurotransmissions from ever reaching the brain.

An opioid is the general term for the chemical that is harvested from a poppy flower, with the finished product of opium being the root drug for today’s medications. This class of drug can include opiate narcotics, but also includes synthetically created drugs that mimic the chemicals found in opium poppy. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states on www.drugabuse.gov/researchreports that opioids work by binding to opioid receptors throughout our body. These receptors are generally found in our brain and spinal cord, which are components of the central nervous system. Receptors can also be found in the gastrointestinal tract. When opioids are ingested, they bind to these receptors and prevent pain signals from reaching the brain. According to arthritis.about.com, besides raising pain tolerance and hindering the brain’s perception of pain, opioids are extremely effective pain relievers, and in some cases, can cause euphoria. However, the NIDA reports that opioids are one of three most commonly abused prescription medications. Although effective, opioids should be taken with caution.