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Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers: Silencing the Body’s Signals
The little capsules doctors recommend for minor aches are strong enough to help the whole body feel better. Read on to learn how pain relievers disrupt the pain process.
All throughout the human body—in skin, muscles, teeth, internal organs, you name it—specialized nerve cells called nociceptors stand guard, ready to alert the brain to different kinds of danger. When the body is injured, the damaged cells release a class of substances known as prostaglandins. (These are also what causes injured areas to swell and radiate zigzag lines into the air.) The nocireceptors are activated by the prostaglandin, triggering the brain to turn on its alarm system, which we "hear" in the form of pain.
Pain relievers work by muffling this alarm system, specifically by disabling one of the enzymes that kicks prostaglandin production into gear. Acetaminophen, found in Tylenol, works specifically on central-nervous-system cells, meaning that it will block pain messages from getting to the brain but won't help reduce inflammation in other parts of the body. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)—which include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen—are more flexible, cutting off the prostaglandin supply wherever they find it in the body.