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Can You Beat Pain with a Pill?

By Dr. Jon Thomas DC, BCIM

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When it comes to living life to its fullest, pain is the regulator on all our activities.  No matter how much you want to achieve a personal fitness goal or take your workout routine to the next level, no amount of motivation is going to be able to overcome pain when it rears its ugly head.  That’s as it should be since pain has evolved right along with homo sapiens to let us know when to back off.  It’s what told our caveman ancestors to pull their hands out of the fire, among other things. 
That being said, as our relationship to pain has evolved, so has our desire to do something about it.  The ancient Greeks used to prescribe the chewing of willow leaves to help dampen the pain of childbirth.  While we don’t pop a handful of willow leaves in this day and age, we do pop the occasional aspirin, the active ingredient of which is salicylic acid, which comes from the bark of the willow tree.

Other cultures, such as the Chinese, have known of the painkilling properties of opiates for hundreds of years.  By the 16th century, this led to the discovery of laudanum, which was an opiate solution whose base was grain alcohol.  While this elixir did indeed deaden pain, it wasn’t long before it caused an unwanted side effect, opium addiction.  By the 1830’s opium dependency had reached such epidemic proportions that the British crown mobilized warships to suppress opium traffic along the Chinese coast in what became known as the “First Opium War.”  If you thought the current “War on Drugs” was something new, think again.  Painkillers have proven to be a two-edged sword for nearly three hundred years. 

Today there are many different types of pain relievers.  Some of these are used to reduce swelling, inflammation, and pain, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.  Ibuprofen and aspirin work to reduce pain by selectively blocking the production of prostaglandin. When our cells are damaged, they release arachidonic acid, which is then converted into prostaglandin by enzymes that occur naturally in the body.  This, in turn, is converted into yet more chemicals that cause inflammation, raise body temperature and lower our pain threshold.  Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen temporarily interfere with the enzymes that create prostaglandin. 

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Just as with opium, taking too much aspirin can lead to unwanted side effects such as upset stomach, nausea, dizziness, drowsiness, ringing in the ears, accelerated heartbeat, and in some cases seizures and collapse.  While most people know better than to down a fistful of aspirin at one go, what most do not realize is that even a normal dose of aspirin if taken daily can build up in the body over time to cause these symptoms.  It also doesn’t help that each aspirin pill can contain from 325 to 500 mg of the drug.  

Other over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, which is the primary ingredient in Tylenol, work by decreasing the body’s pain response.  The danger in taking too much acetaminophen is that it can cause liver damage when taken above the recommended dose over a period of days.  During the past decade, more than 1,500 American deaths have been linked to acetaminophen overdoses. 

Opioids work by modifying the pain messages sent to the brain. These include Morphine, Methadone, Codeine, Percocet, Vicodin, Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, OxyContin, and Fentanyl. While they work remarkably well at countering pain, these medications have some really big thorns, since they also produce a sense of euphoria which many people find hard to resist.  Far worse is the ever-increasing number of accidental drug overdoses attributed to painkillers.  A December 9, 2016, blog from sums it up best:

The Problems with Pain Pills

More than 50,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year, the most ever. Heroin deaths rose 23 percent in one year, to 12,989, slightly higher than the number of gun homicides, according to government data released Thursday.  Deaths from synthetic opioids, including illicit fentanyl, rose 73 percent to 9,580. And prescription painkillers took the highest toll, but posted the smallest increase. Abuse of drugs like Oxycontin and Vicodin killed 17,536, an increase of 4 percent.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this. Certainly not in modern times,” said Robert Anderson, who oversees death Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The risk of accidental death aside, there are some other fundamental problems associated with pain pills:
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      1.         People assume that over-the-counter pain relievers are safe.  Last year, more than 80,000 people who took acetaminophen wound up in the ER. (Consumer Reports)
      2.         The body builds up a resistance to painkillers of all kinds, forcing the patient to take ever increasing doses to derive the same effect.
      3.         The more of the drug you take, the more dependent you become on it.
      4.         Opiates are known to cause constipation, even when taken at normal doses.
      5.         Acetaminophen can cause liver damage, particularly when taken in high doses.
      6.         Chronic use of painkillers can damage the kidneys.

Over and above all the sobering facts and statistics is the realization that pain medications simply mask what the body is trying to tell you in the first place.  This can result in a domino effect where the body sustains additional injuries resulting in more pain and requiring additional pain medication.  While pain suppressants are necessary during surgery, or at the time of a traumatic injury, where pain pills do more harm than good is when they are used on a long-term basis. 

SO…Is there another option?

Being a chiropractor, my first priority is to assess and rectify the underlying cause of pain, as opposed to simply masking it.  While this sometimes necessitates the need to prescribe some form of pain medication, this is only done on a short-term basis. Through Specific Scientific Chiropractic Care the body is evaluated for structural issues, Abnormal movement patterns related to the complaints noted, and what soft tissue is involved. As I treat my patients I focus on correcting each aspect not just hard tissue allowing for faster recovery, in-depth correction, and greater comfort for the patient.  Because it’s only by correcting the defect or injury that I can help my patients lead a healthy and happy life. The only other alternative leads down the slippery slope of drug dependence.  And that’s a hard pill to swallow.

Read these online articles for more information:

 Dr. Jon Thomas is a Board Certified Chiropractic Physician. His practice, The Vibrant Life Health Center, is located in the Mandarin section of Jacksonville. After studying and learning from some of the top health experts throughout the world, Dr. Thomas dedicated his life to helping people of all ages to transform their lives. The objective for each patient is to initiate the body’s healing and to work progressively toward a body that functions optimally. Dr. Thomas is regularly seen on TV on First Coast Living, where he discusses the transformations of his patients. He also speaks at events throughout the community and writes informative articles to improve the health of residents throughout Northeast Florida.


  1. Most people don't realize that over-the-counter medications can be toxic if they take too much. Lesson learned.

  2. In the 80's, my doctor (an MD) tried to beat my pain with pills. it just made things worse over time. That is when I discovered Chiropractic and natural supplements. Thanks Dr. Jon for sharing such useful information.