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What are Pain Killers?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 17, 2024
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Painkillers are medications designed specifically to ease pain. Usually painkillers are created and sold by pharmaceutical companies. While some painkillers have specific healthcare purposes, like certain migraine formulations, most painkillers are general purpose.

There are several ways that painkillers are categorized. One method is to divide them into over the counter (OTC) painkillers—those that can be purchased by the consumer without a prescription—and those that require a prescription for a legal purchase.

A second way to categorize painkillers is by their chemical type. Painkillers include opiates—also called narcotics: conventional or non-selective, semi-selective, and selective nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs); painkillers that do not fit in any of those categories; and combination painkillers. Two things to be aware of: the Food and Drug Administration does not report on semi-selective NSAIDs,and selective NSAIDs are also called COX-2 inhibitors. Here are some of the most familiar painkillers in each category:

Opiatescodeine, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone
non-selective NSAIDSaspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen
selective NSAIDS Celebrex® and Vioxx®
none of the aboveacetaminophen
opiate + aspirin Endodan® and Percodan®
opiate + acetaminophen Percocet® and Vicodin®
opiate + ibuprofenCombunox®

The opiates were among the first painkillers to be discovered. Opium was being grown by Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Sumerians by about 3400 B.C. It was being used in 5th century B.C. Greece by the physician Hippocrates, along with salacin from willow bark, which is precursor of aspirin, which was created by a German chemist, Felix Hoffman, in 1897. Nineteenth century Germany was the location for the discovery of acetaminophen. In 1889, Karl Morner, a German scientist, discovered that acetaminophen is made by the human body as it metabolized phenacetin, a French painkiller discovery.

But it was not until the twentieth centuries that the NSAIDS were discovered. Indomethacin, the first NSAID to be found, was found in the 1960s by US chemist Tsung-Ying Shen. The COX-2 inhibitors were discovered by US professor W. L. Xie and colleagues in 1991.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for WiseGeek, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By Prayers2Heal — On Jun 24, 2010

RockinGranny- Thank you for the advice, but I was still a little weary about my decision so I kept my research going. Plus my husband wants a say in what medications I take since we have little ones under 10 at home.

I have decided to try Opana. My doctor is suggesting I keep on the long lasting morphine and start with short lasting Opana to see how it affects me mentally and physically. I start tomorrow and will keep this updated.

By RockinGranny — On Jun 02, 2010

Prayers, I've taken just about every pain medication out there and believe me when I say not to count on everything you read. Just because a patient has no significant reaction to Oxycontin, doesn't mean you won't. You might want to start with that drug, simply because it’s been around longer. Stay safe and always follow prescriptions as directed.

By Prayers2Heal — On Jun 01, 2010

For the past nine months I’ve been on both long and short lasting morphine for my back injuries. Unfortunately, I've grown tolerant and because my weight plummeted, my Doctor wants to switch medications instead of upping my dosage. I have to switch to either oxycontin or Opana. There are so many celebrity horror stories overdosing while on oxycontin, it’s scary. However, unlike morphine, it doesn’t cause drowsiness (which certainly is a plus for my family).

Now Opana was new to me, so after research I found it is more potent and has fewer cases of overdoses. In fact, some people say they can’t even tell they’re on anything at all and can function well. Ugh, what is a young mom to do? Decisions. Decisions.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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