Pain Relief Throughout the Ages - Aussie Pharmacy

Here’s something you won’t find hard to imagine: pain.

No, I’m not talking emotional pain, existential pain, or the uncle who doesn’t bring a plate of food to share to Christmas lunch and stays for three hours after the rest of the guests leave.

I’m talking garden-variety physical pain: toothaches, migraines, period cramps, strained muscles, general soreness. The list goes on. I don’t need to keep describing this type of pain, because it’s something we’re all familiar with in one way or another. We’d recognise it in an instant on the street; we’d have no problem identifying it in a police line-up.

Marcia Meldrum is an associate researcher in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. She puts it simply: ‘Pain is a constant companion for humanity.’[1] Would it surprise you to learn that I am a big Taylor Swift fan? Consider the lyrics of one of her songs from Red: ‘Stay, stay, stay.’ Well, pain has taken Taylor’s advice. It’s stuck to the human experience like barnacles to the bottom of a ship.

Because there is pain, we seek relief

Something that might be nearly as familiar to us is pain relief medication. Pain relief medication comes in almost as many shapes, sizes, forms, and varieties as pain itself does. You’re probably aware that some pain relief medication is available over-the-counter (or online, if that floats your boat). Other pain relief medication requires a prescription from a doctor.

If you’re experiencing pain, you should chat with your doctor or a trusted health professional about what is right for you. A gelParacetamolTopical products?

Just remember that not all products are right for everyone. For example, Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs aren’t appropriate for you if you have:

  •       Stomach issues and gut health concerns
  •       Pre-existing or emerging liver conditions
  •       Hypertension or other issues related to blood pressure
  •       Asthma
  •       Other underlying health-related reasons

I know I’ve already said it, but it’s worth repeating: if in doubt, speak to a medical professional.

Pain relief medication: then, now, and the future

I’ve been thinking a little bit about Charles Dickens’ slim little novel A Christmas Carol. You might have read it, or you might be familiar with the (surprisingly good) muppet version. You have to be a person of a certain age to have seen that, though.

The story is breathtakingly simple. A stingy old man named Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts: Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come (to be honest, they are more spirits than ghosts). Each ghost gives insight into Scrooge’s view of – you guessed it – past, present, and future Christmases, and each gives Scrooge a chance for redemption.

Here’s my question: if Pain Relief Medication Past, Present, and Yet to Come visited us, what would we learn?

The Ghost of Pain Past

The Ghost of Pain Past is here to remind you of the sometimes surprising and often somewhat horrifying ways that people treated pain in days gone by. It should be obvious, but let me make it very clear: what follows is not a recommendation.

Let’s start around the year 1600. Much to the disappointment of school students for the next four hundred years, Shakespeare has just penned Hamlet. Spain has built the greatest navy the world has ever seen after its previous greatest navy the world has ever seen was destroyed by a storm. Europe is being reshaped by new ways of thinking, doing, and being.

And someone has a toothache.

What do the doctors recommend? They would recommend something called the soporific sponge. This was a sponge plucked from the sea, soaked in a brew of opium, mandrake, hemlock, and a handful of other ingredients, then held under a patient’s nose.

Can I again state the obvious? Don’t do this at home. It’s dangerous, illegal, and – given the great options that we have today – just plain stupid. But it is kind of interesting.

The soporific sponge fell out of favour, and we won’t be seeing it anytime soon. Here’s something else you might have found, all the way up to the early 1800s: leeching.

Leeching is a very unpleasant verb because it is derived from a very unpleasant noun. Is there a word as appropriately slimy and distasteful in the English language as ‘leech’? If so, I don’t know it.

Leeching – the act of using a leech to draw blood – was meant to be an effective form of pain relief. Some are suggesting that it be brought back as a form of treatment![2] I’m not so convinced. Sometimes the past should be like Las Vegas: what happens there, stays there.

The Ghost of Pain Present

Fortunately, today we a blessed with a plethora of ways to manage pain. This can be divided into roughly two categories: over-the-counter pain relief medication, and medicine only available if prescribed by your doctor.

I want to focus for now on over-the-counter pain relief. I’ve alluded to these already. They include:

  • Paracetamol, which is the active ingredient in the famous Panadol brand but can be found in a range of products. Paracetamol is arguably the preferred way that Australians manage short-term, non-chronic pain, and it is safe if used according to the instructions.[3] Paracetamol has been used in Australia since the 1950s, so it’s not exactly new-fangled technology. But for many people, it does the job and acts as the first port of call when pain strikes.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin work by suppressing pain-producing substances in your body.[4] It is kind of like turning the volume down on a guitar amp; it’s not just that you hear less, it’s that less sound is actually produced. Amazingly, aspirin was invented before Einstein came up with his famous theory of relativity. It’s older than the Titanic. And it still does the job today. According to the Australian Therapeutic Goods Association, you might take aspirin for any one of the following:

Temporary relief of pain and/or inflammation associated with headache, migraine headache, tension headache, sinus pain, toothache, dental procedures, backache, muscular aches and pains, arthritis, osteoarthritis, rheumatic pain, period pain, fibrositis, neuralgia, sore throat, tennis elbow, and colds and flu.[5]

The Ghost of Pain Yet to Come

So, what will pain management – and pain relief medication – look like in the future? I know this might feel like a let-down, but to be honest … I can’t say for sure. What I do know is that for as long as there is pain, there will be people working to alleviate it.

It’s likely that future strategies for managing pain will involve a more holistic approach. It’s likely that pain relief medication will always play a role, but increasingly scientists and medical researchers are looking into how technology, psychology, and other factors might help manage and reduce pain.

Will we ever eliminate pain? I won’t hold my breath. Pain is part of life, and life in all its complexity is inescapably beautiful.

Am I saying that pain is good? Of course not. But (fortunately) it is manageable.


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5760261/

[2] https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/10.7326/0003-4819-139-9-200311040-00006

[3] https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2019/09/02/australia-has-a-paracetamol-poisoning-problem.html

[4] https://www.mydr.com.au/aspirin/

[5] https://www.tga.gov.au/otc-medicine-monograph-aspirin-tablets-oral-use#active

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