Your head is pounding. Your nose is flowing free. Opening your eyes invites a stabbing pain into the back of your head.
It is in these moments that we turn to the unsung heroes of the first aid kit: painkillers. Strangely enough, most people don’t know a whole lot about the different varieties and are left with many unanswered questions: Is there a difference between Panamax vs Panadol? Can I take different medicines together? Is it possible to overdose on painkillers?
Today we will step through a beginner’s guide to painkillers and how best to use them in the hope that you can manage your pain as effectively as possible. When you are in a world of hurt, this knowledge will suddenly become very important.
Paracetamol has been a staple in most medicine cabinets for over fifty years, but curiously, the exact science behind its efficacy is still not fully understood. Don’t panic, that doesn’t mean it is untested. It has gone through rigorous safety testing, and has come out with a completely clean record. It is important however to follow the instructions on the packaging, as incidents of paracetamol overdosing has begun to increase in Australia. In the ten years between 2007 to 2017, there were over 95,000 hospitalisations. If you begin experiencing nausea, vomiting, lethargy, abdominal pain, or seizures, it is essential that you seek urgent medical intervention.
When taken safely, however, it effectively dulls the pain receptors in your brain so that even if you’re not actually getting better, you will start feeling better. And perception is nine tenths of reality after all. It can be confusing when considering all the different brand names (which is why the perennial ‘panamax vs panadol’ question comes up), but you just need to check the ingredients on the packaging to know what you are taking.
You should consider taking paracetamol for:
- An aching back
- Headaches or migraine
- Muscle strains
- Period Pain
- Aches and pains relating to colds and flu
You should consider avoiding paracetamol if you’ve experienced:
- Liver or kidney problems
- Issues with alcohol
Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory which works differently to paracetamol. Where paracetamol kills the pain by dulling the pain receptors in your brain, Ibuprofen does so by targeting the site of inflammation and reducing the swelling. You start to feel better because your pain is actually reducing. Think of Paracetamol as the PR department, and Ibuprofen as the men in the field. The best thing about Ibuprofen and paracetamol is that they can be taken concurrently. They don’t get in each other’s way, so you’re not overdosing on anything. One thing that is worth considering is that many products will blend paracetamol and Ibuprofen together. Make sure you know exactly what you are taking.
You should consider taking Ibuprofen for:
- Back aches
- Tension headaches
- Sinus pain
- Sore throat
- The pain associated with arthritis
- Period pain
You should consider avoiding Ibuprofen if:
- Have signs of an allergic reaction
- You are pregnant or breastfeeding
- Kidney, liver or heart disease
This is a category of painkillers called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs - Ibuprofen also falls into this category). Curiously, the main ingredient in Aspirin is salicylate which can be found in the myrtle and willow trees, and there is evidence of its use to treat pain dating back 2500 years in Ancient Greece. Hippocrates (who lends his name to the Hippocratic oath taken by doctors to ‘first do no harm). Aspirin does exactly that: no harm. It functions in the same way as Ibuprofen, but the current health advice is that you should chat with your GP about whether Aspirin or Ibuprofen would better suit your individual circumstances.
Aspirin also comes with a slight added bonus of acting as a blood thinner which means that it can reduce the risk of cardiovascular episodes. After all, it is difficult for your blood to clot and cause a heart attack if it has been thinned by aspirin.
This is where we are starting to ramp up into the more powerful drugs.It is part of the opioid family, and requires a prescription from your doctor. It is a short term option to deal with moderate pain, which can be used if the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs have been unsuccessful in managing the pain. It directly affects the receptors in your central nervous system by interrupting the way your nerves receive pain signals from the rest of your body. In this sense, it is like paracetamol on… steroids. It also has a curious affect on the area of the brain that regulates coughing. This is incredibly welcome news because if you’ve got a tender injury like a broken rib and you keep coughing, it can be the worst experience of your life.
Codeine is a double edged sword, however. Whilst it is incredibly powerful in mininsing pain, it can also become addictive. You might have read about the opioid crisis sweeping America? Essentially, people become reliant on the drug as you might with nicotine or sugar. The problem is that an opioid in large doses can be fatal. Heroin is an opioid after all.,Many people overdose on prescription drugs on the belief that they are somehow safer because they arrived in a packet rather than in a bag from someone in a back alley. Opioids have also been linked to a life threatening breathing condition. You are especially at risk if you are taking codeine for the first time, are elderly or have an existing lung problem.
The side effects of codeine include:
- Strange dreams
- Mood changes
- Feeling faint, drowsy or dizzy
If you or anyone you know is taking codeine beyond their prescription, they may be at serious risk. Encourage them to seek help.
Hopefully, you become more aware of your options with regard to pain management now. You need not be stumped by the ‘panamax vs panadol’ question any more: They are both paracetamol! The more you know…