How Do Painkillers Find & Kill Pain?

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iStock

First, we need to make a distinction between the two main classes of painkillers, which are used for different situations and function via different mechanisms.

The first class is the narcotic opioid drugs. These are the heavy-duty drugs, like morphine and codeine, used to treat severe pain. They relieve pain in two ways: first by interfering with and blocking the transmission of pain signals to the brain, and then by working in the brain to alter the sensation of pain. These drugs neither find nor kill pain, but reduce and alter the user's perception of the pain. They're kind of like having an optimistic friend that says, "Hey man, everything will be cool. Nothing's wrong. Here, look at this shiny, distracting thing!"

The other class is the aspirin drugs, like paracetamol and ibuprofen. These are the over the counter drugs we reach for whenever we've got a headache or a sore back. Throughout history, people all over the world were using botanical remedies for pain. The ancient Egyptians used leaves from the myrtle bush, Europeans chewed on hunks of willow bark and Native Americans did the same with birch bark. In the nineteenth century, scientists isolated the chemical in all these plants that gave them their pain relieving properties: salicin (which is metabolized to salicylic acid when consumed). They also discovered that these chemicals produced the side effect of horrendous digestive problems (which answers that other burning question, "Why is that Native American in that old commercial crying?").

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Eventually, a scientist at Bayer Pharmaceutical synthesized a less harmful derivative chemical, acetylsalicylic acid (ASA). Bayer dubbed it Aspirin and commercialized it. Hoffmann went on to develop a "non-addictive" substitute for morphine. The resulting product, heroin, was less successful than aspirin.

Despite its long history, we didn't discover how aspirin works until the early 1970s. Unlike narcotics, aspirin drugs are real workhorses that actually go to the source of pain and stop it. When cells are damaged, they produce large quantities of an enzyme called cyclooxygenase-2. This enzyme, in turn, produces chemicals called prostaglandins, which send pain signals to the brain. They also cause the area that has been damaged to release fluid from the blood to create a cushion so the damaged cells don't take any more of a beating. This cushion is the swelling and inflammation that goes along with our aches and pains. When we take aspirin, it dissolves in our stomachs and travels through the whole body via the bloodstream. Although it's everywhere, it only works its magic at the site of cell damage by binding to the cylooxygenase-2 enzymes and stopping them from prostaglandins. No more prostaglandins means no more pain signals. The cells at the damage site, of course, are still damaged, but we're left blissfully unaware.

This prostaglandin-stopping power is also why people take aspirin regularly to reduce the risk of heart attacks, since prostaglandins in the bloodstream can cause clotting. Additionally, aspirin reduces the production of thromboxane, a chemical that makes platelets, a type of blood cell, sticky. With aspirin in our systems, platelets make less thromboxane and are less likely to form a clot and block an artery.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

Amazon
Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

Starbucks Is Giving Free Coffee to Frontline COVID-19 Workers All Month Long

Starbucks is saying thank you in typical Starbucks fashion.
Starbucks is saying thank you in typical Starbucks fashion.
Starbucks

Starbucks is showing its support for those individuals on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 this holiday season by giving the gift of free coffee—all month long.

From now through December 31, any health care worker or other frontline worker can get a tall hot or iced coffee whenever they stop by Starbucks. The offer extends to just about anybody in a medical profession, including doctors, nurses, public health administrators, pharmacists, paramedics, dentists and dental hygienists, therapists, psychologists, social workers, counselors, and other mental health professionals. Non-medical hospital personnel—including members of the janitorial, housekeeping, and security staffs—also qualify, as do emergency dispatchers, firefighters, police officers, and active-duty members of the military.

To address the pandemic’s emotional toll on essential workers, Starbucks has also contributed $100,000 to the National Alliance on Mental Illness to be used for virtual mental health services; and the company will give out 50,000 Starbucks care packages and gift cards to frontline workers across the country. While the main goal is to show gratitude to those keeping the nation afloat during an extremely difficult time, Starbucks is also hoping their initiative can be an example for other companies with resources to spare.

“Hopefully other brands will join us in thinking about how [they can] use their platform to again show support,” Virginia Tenpenny, Starbucks's vice president of global social impact, told USA TODAY. “Little deposits in morale can really go a long way, just so that they feel the support from our community.”

It’s not the first time Starbucks has spearheaded a long-term coffee giveaway this year; between March and May, the company handed out more than 2 million free cups of joe to professionals helping the country through the coronavirus pandemic. The Starbucks Foundation has also donated several million dollars to relief funds, food banks, and local organizations.

[h/t USA Today]