Medical Column: Too Good To Be True – The Truth Behind Pain Powders

By: Dr. Allison Tresner 
Family Medicine Resident 
Colquitt Regional Medical Center 

Everyone gets a headache from time to time. Here in the South, many of us may feel inclined to reach for some good old pain relief powder. But before you open that sweet packet of relief, do you really know what it can do to your body? While it can provide wonderful, quick pain relief for your headache, it may also be wreaking havoc on other parts of your body that you cannot see! While these pain relief powders may go by different brand names, they are often advertised as fast relief for headache or migraine symptoms. These are also frequently used for ailments such as muscle aches, hangovers, and generalized body pain. However, while these medicated powders may be an easy, over-the-counter source of pain relief, they can have some undesirable side effects.

Why do they work so quickly and so well? A blend of aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine combined in powder form provides relief for certain aches and pains, and they are fast and convenient in part because of their easy absorption in the stomach. As for the aspirin, it is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that many people with heart disease take in small doses (“baby” aspirin) to act as a blood thinner. Aspirin works to mediate chemicals involved ininflammation, which is a combination of swelling, heat, pain, and even fever. These pain reliefpowders also contain acetaminophen, which works to reduce fever and pain, and caffeine, which you may be most familiar with as the energy booster in your morning coffee. When caffeine is used in combination with these two pain killers, it can act to increase or improve their effects, in addition to waking you up. In combination, these medications provide quick pain relief for a variety of aches and pains.

So how can this be bad? When taken at such high doses, the aspirin found in pain powders may have some scary side effects. NSAIDs are famous for causing issues with the gastrointestinal (GI) tract (esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine), as well as the kidneys. One of the major side effects of excessive NSAID use is bleeding from the GI tract. This bleeding can be seen as bright red blood or dark maroon colored blood in the stool or coffee-ground- like material seen in vomit. In fact, NSAIDs are so famous for causing GI bleeding that your healthcare provider may ask you a common question about “frequent NSAID use.

The good news is that there are safe alternatives to NSAIDs, and while pain powders are certainly known for giving fast relief, they are best used in moderation. If you require frequenttodaily use of these medications, you should have a conversation with your family physician, as there might be something more going on. Your doctor may also provide you with an alternative medication that may be more suitable and specific for your painful condition.