Pain is not a disease but a symptom of some other problem. Drugs used to relieve pain are called analgesics, which form a rather diverse group. We do not fully understand how most analgesics work. Analgesics fall into two categories: They may be either narcotic or nonnarcotic.
Narcotics are derived from the opium poppy. They act on the brain to relieve pain, often bringing on drowsiness and a feeling of well-being. Some narcotics relieve coughing spasms and are used in prescription cough syrups. Unfortunately, narcotics can be addictive. To date, attempts by manufacturers to produce nonaddictive synthetic narcotic derivatives have not succeeded.
Nonnarcotic pain relievers are also used. Aspirin and related medications, called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), are the most frequently used pain relievers in the United States today. Aspirin does not require a prescription, but doctors often write prescriptions for it to treat diseases such as arthritis.
Acetaminophen, which is not an NSAID, may be used in place of aspirin to relieve pain, but it does not reduce inflammation.
A number of analgesic medications contain codeine or other narcotics in combination with nonnarcotic analgesics (such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen). These combination analgesics are not as potent as pure narcotics but are frequently as effective. Because these medications contain narcotics, however, they have the potential for abuse and must be used with caution.