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How do painkillers kill pain? It’s about meeting the pain where it’s at

A variety of pain-relieving drugs are available both over the counter and by prescription.

Enlarge / A variety of pain-relieving drugs are available both over the counter and by prescription. (credit: SelectStock/Getty)

Without the ability to feel pain, life is more dangerous. To avoid injury, pain tells us to use a hammer more gently, wait for the soup to cool or put on gloves in a snowball fight. Those with rare inherited disorders that leave them without the ability to feel pain are unable to protect themselves from environmental threats, leading to broken bones, damaged skin, infections, and ultimately a shorter life span.

In these contexts, pain is much more than a sensation: It is a protective call to action. But pain that is too intense or long-lasting can be debilitating. So how does modern medicine soften the call?

As a neurobiologist and an anesthesiologist who study pain, this is a question we and other researchers have tried to answer. Science’s understanding of how the body senses tissue damage and perceives it as pain has progressed tremendously over the past several years. It has become clear that there are multiple pathways that signal tissue damage to the brain and sound the pain alarm bell.

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