Analgesics, also called painkillers, are medications that relieve different types of pain — from headaches to injuries to arthritis. Anti-inflammatory analgesics reduce inflammation, and opioid analgesics change the way the brain perceives pain. Some analgesics can be bought over the counter, others require a prescription.
Analgesics are medications that relieve pain. Unlike medications used for anesthesia during surgery, analgesics don’t turn off nerves, change the ability to sense your surroundings or alter consciousness. They are sometimes called painkillers or pain relievers.
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Analgesics are used to relieve pain and inflammation. For example:
There are two major groups of analgesics: anti-inflammatory analgesics and opioids. Anti-inflammatory drugs work by reducing inflammation (swelling) at the site of the pain. Examples include:
Analgesic opioids (also called narcotics) work by changing the brain’s perception of pain. An opioid can be any drug, natural or manmade. Many are similar to morphine, but newer, unrelated opioids have been created in the laboratory, too. Examples include:
Some pain medicines are available over the counter (OTC), which means you don’t need a prescription at all. Others are available by prescription only: often these include higher doses of OTC medications, combination analgesics and all opioids.
Pain relievers are available in many forms, including:
Ask your healthcare provider what route is best for you. Your healthcare team can also help you determine the right dose to take, how often and for how long.
Anti-inflammatory analgesics are generally safe. But they can cause side effects and complications, if you use them too often, for too long or in very large doses:
Opioid analgesics can cause many of the same side effects and complications. Opioids are tightly controlled because they can cause physical dependence and are prone to abuse. The problem, which doctors now call substance abuse disorder, can be mild, moderate or severe, so it isn’t always recognized right away.
Some tell-tale signs a problem may be developing include:
Make sure you keep all pain relievers out of children’s reach.
Over time, you may find that an analgesic can become less and less effective, which is called tolerance. You may need higher doses or more frequent doses, but you should be careful to avoid side effects and dependence.
Check with your health insurer. Many prescription analgesics are covered, but most over-the counter analgesics are not.
Seek prompt medical attention if you are on a pain medication and experience:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Analgesics are medications that treat your pain by reducing inflammation or changing the way your brain understands pain. Many types of analgesics are available, and they range from pills and liquids, to gels and patches you apply to your body. Some are available over the counter, and some require a prescription from your healthcare provider. Your provider can help you figure out the type of medication that's most effective for your type of pain.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/22/2021.
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