Understanding pain relief medication

What is pain?

Pain is one of the body's protective mechanisms. It acts as a warning sign to alert you to situations or actions that may be causing damage to your body so that you can act to avoid the situation or stop the action. Pain is the way your brain interprets information about a particular sensation that your body is experiencing. Signals are sent via nerve pathways to your brain.

Because perception and tolerance of pain can vary widely between individuals, that which is very painful for one person may be only moderately painful for another. In addition, the way in which your own brain interprets these signals can also be affected by many factors and so what is painful to you one day, may be less so on a different day.

Pain is usually categorised as being either acute or chronic.

Acute pain starts suddenly and tends to be short-lived, but may last up to 3 months. Acute pain has an identifiable cause and purpose and the pain gradually disappears through the process of normal healing.

Chronic or persistent pain by definition persists for more than six months, beyond the normal time of healing, and can sometimes last for years. Chronic pain may be the result of a specific injury or an ongoing medical problem or sometimes there may be no obvious cause. The pain associated with osteoarthritis is usually chronic pain.

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Why is pain management important?

Being in constant pain will often affect other aspects of your life such as the ability to sleep soundly, the ability to work, it can lead to emotional distress and may cause strain on relationships. The treatment for chronic pain differs from that of acute pain. The medication choices that are appropriate for acute pain may not be the best choice for treating chronic pain. Some medications, because of their associated side effects, should only be used for the short term and as such are not recommended for treating chronic pain. Often non-medicated treatments can work as well as, if not better than, some medications for treating chronic pain.

Osteoarthritis (OA) can be a very painful condition. As someone with osteoarthritis, it is important that you work with your healthcare team to find the best combination of medicines and non-medicated treatments that will work for you, to minimise the pain and disability you experience. There are a number of non-medicated techniques for dealing with the pain of OA, which are detailed in the “Non-Medicated Pain Management” page which you should review if you haven’t already done so. However it is also important to understand what types of medications are recommended to be used to prevent and to treat the pain of OA.

There are a number of medicines your doctor may choose to recommend for you and their choice of medications will depend on how severe your pain is, any other medicines you might be taking, and any other health conditions you may have. Often they will recommend a combination of medications to best treat both the pain and inflammation that is associated with OA.

Pain relieving medications (analgesics)

Pain relieving medications work by inhibiting or blocking the brain’s perception of pain. They don’t stop the damage that is causing the pain but they do reduce the sensations that are relayed via the nervous system back to the pain centre of the brain, enough so that functions of daily living can still be performed.

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Potential Side Effects

Any medication that has a therapeutic effect also has the potential to cause unwanted or adverse side effects. To find out more about the potential side effects of the medications you take, ask your pharmacist for a Consumer Medication Information leaflet and discuss with them the information contained within it.

Different pain relieving medications are available including: