Clip of the Day: How Do Painkillers Work Their Magic?

TED-Ed explains the science behind those headache-soothing pills.

Say you’ve got a stabbing toothache. Your mouth feels like someone is trying to use it to drill a hole to China and you don’t know what to do. On the phone, your dentist recommends a particular pain reliever brand. But what difference does it make if you take Advil or Tylenol, Motrin or Aleve? Aren’t they all the same?

A new video from TED-Ed answers this question, shedding light on the chemical properties behind different classes of pain relievers.

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What's the difference between aspirin and ibuprofen? (Photo: TED-Ed)

TED-Ed, the educational extension of TED, offers curated videos that can be used to create customized teaching lessons. In this lesson, educator George Zaidan teams up with artists from Augenblick Studios to bring pain drugs to animated life. At least 86 people have “flipped” the video already, meaning they have customized a lesson for students around the clip.

Nociceptors, or specialized nerve cells that alert you to pain, are found throughout your body. They only fire when something happens that could cause damage, explains the narrator. When cells are damaged, your threshold for pain gets reduced.

Aspirin and ibuprofen, two highly popular over-the-counter painkillers, work in different ways. Aspirin, commonly found under the Bayer brand, blocks the production of prostaglandins, or compounds that play a role in inflammation. Ibuprofen, popularly known as Advil, also works to stop prostaglandins, but is less permanent than the former and is known to have milder side effects. Various pain relievers can target different pains and trigger different responses, so be sure to check before you pop some pills.

“How much pain you feel can depend on whether you’re paying attention to the pain or even your mood,” the narrator says. “Pain is an area of active research. If we understand it better, maybe we can help people manage it better.”

What’s your go-to remedy for a headache or fever? Let us know in the comments.

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Kelly Zhou hails from the Bay Area and is currently a student in Los Angeles. She has written on a variety of topics, predominantly focusing on politics and education. Email Kelly | @kelllyzhou | TakePart.com