The most common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) available today is aspirin. This medication was developed in 1897 by the German research chemist Felix Hoffman. It has since become one of the most versatile drugs available and treats multiple conditions such as headaches and can even help prevent heart attacks.

Aspirin’s active ingredient is acetyl salicylic acid, a form of salicin that is most commonly found in willow plants. Willow bark and willow extracts have been used medicinally since the dawn of civilization. The father of modern medicine, Greek physician Hippocrates, recommended a willow leaf tea to treat the pain of childbirth. Many early cultures used willow bark and other parts of the willow plant to treat a variety of pain conditions. Understanding the chemistry wasn’t as important as recognizing the effects of the treatment on pain.

When salicin is converted to acetyl salicylic acid it becomes difficult to swallow and causes irritation in the mouth and stomach eventually leading to critical issues such as bleeding. So Hoffmann, working for Bayer pharmaceutical, developed a process to synthesize the acetyl salicylic acid which later became aspirin.

However, the true effects of aspirin weren’t fully understood until the 20th century. It was in the 1970s that a British professor named John Vane discovered that aspirin worked by blocking an enzyme that the body produces during pain and tissue injury. Of course, more research is continuously conducted to determine the effects and efficacy of this popular medication.

To learn more about the history of aspirin, take a look at information provided by the Aspirin Foundation.

Risks and benefits of aspirin

While aspirin is the most common medication taken around the world today, there are some things to consider when using it to treat your pain. There is no treatment that is considered 100% risk-free so understanding and weighing the options is essential when starting any drug. What are the risks and benefits of this non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug?

The biggest risk of taking aspirin is bleeding in the stomach and small intestine. Asprin can affect the protective layer of the lining in the stomach that stops the body’s digestive acids from damaging the intestinal tract. This typically occurs when aspirin is taken at high doses and for an extended period of time. The damage occurs slowly and can eventually lead to bleeding. Aspirin is also used to prevent blood clots, which can affect the healing process of damaged blood vessels and lead to bleeding in the brain.

However, taken correctly aspirin also has a number of positive benefits. It blocks the enzyme that communicates pain in the body and can help decrease clotting of the blood to prevent heart attacks.

While pain, including headaches and muscle pain, is the most common condition aspirin is used to treat its benefits are far reaching. It can be used to treat heart disease, migraine headaches, inflamed joints, fever, and prevent stroke or blood clots from forming.

Recent research on non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

Some recent studies on the effectiveness of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin may change the way medical professionals use them.

The University of California, San Diego Health Sciences, has discovered that there is a second effect when aspirin is taken to treat pain and inflammation. It prevents the production of the pain-causing enzyme but also allows the enzyme to generate a compound that speeds the healing of the inflammation and return the cells to a state of equilibrium known as homeostasis. In the case of this research, the effects are also true of other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

However, the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania used existing research that indicate when non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs block pain-causing enzymes, they sometimes increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and sudden cardiac death. They are using their research to discover safer compounds that relieve pain and inflammation but do not cause many of these more serious side effects.

Alternatives to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

One of the best ways to obtain the benefits of aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs without the same negative side effects is to go directly to the source. Aspirin is derived from the willow plant and many holistic medicine practitioners still recommend it as a remedy for aches and pains. The most common source of this treatment is the bark of the willow plant which can be cultivated from a number of different types of willow.

Willow bark is effective for treating pain including headaches, muscle soreness, menstrual cramps, the two most common forms of arthritis (rheumatoid and osteoarthritis), and gout.

Willow bark is readily available as a supplement and can be found in most health food stores. You may also prefer taking willow bark as a tea and it can be purchased in prepared tea bags. Be sure to follow the package directions and only take the recommended dose. Also, before taking willow bark, inform your healthcare provider that you are taking it so you can work together to prevent unpleasant interactions.

Whether or not you take aspirin or willow bark supplements, the most important thing you can do to manage your pain is to discuss your usage with a doctor. Never take any medications without talking to a specialist to determine if they are the correct treatment for your specific condition. Improper use can lead to multiple side effects and cause more damage than they treat. If you talk to your doctor and determine that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or supplements are best for you, be sure to follow recommended doses and package directions.

What has been your experience with using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to treat minor or chronic pain?

Image by Ryan Dickey via Flickr


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