How do pain relief treatments actually work?

When you’re full of the flu, have a migraine that would down a bear or back trouble that leaves you sitting in funny positions on the couch, it’s easy to grab the first painkiller that you find in the cupboard. Anything is better than nothing, right?

Unfortunately, as always, while we have plenty of choices at our fingertips – just look at the variety of over-the-counter and prescription painkillers available in the UK – it isn’t quite that Our bodies are made up of millions of nerve cells but the ones UNDER the skin – the nociceptors – are the only ones that can act up when they sense damage to your body and send a signal to your brain, telling you that danger could be imminent. This damage could be something simple like banging your toe on an inanimate object, or something much bigger and scarier.

When your body sends the pain signal to your brain, your brain responds by releasing prostoglandin. This is the hormone that increases your sensitivity to pain – it’s your body’s way of telling you to stop doing what you’re doing. If the trigger is small, only a small amount is released and you can usually “walk it off” – and a large trigger will cause your cells to really fire up.

A good example of this is the Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) that everybody feels the day after a hard workout. When lifting heavy weights, rock climbing or whatever else during exercise, the muscles tear in order to rebuild themselves. This means that, the next day, it can hurt to lift your arm above your head – your body has released prostoglandin to stop you doing more damage to your muscles and make sure you don’t injure yourself beyond repair.

Out come the painkillers. In this case, an ibuprofen (or other NSAID, which you can find here: is the best tablet to reach for, as it breaks down and is pumped through your body, alongside your blood. This stops your body from being able to create the hormone prostoglandin, thus stopping the swelling and the pain that accompanies it. It’s important to remember that it doesn’t stop more damage from occurring – just the associated pain.

Because each type of painkiller holds a different level or stopping power, as well as being absorbed and reacting differently in each individual body, they also affect different types of pain in their own, individual way. So, when you’re buying your co-codamol online, make sure you’re using it for the right pain! Our friends over at Business Insider discuss the best painkillers to use here.