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The History of Pain Killers

The history of pain killers dates back to the 4th-5th century B.C. In this article you will find the names and history of different pain killers, prescription and over the counter pain killers, from aspirin and acetaminophen to opium and heroin.


Pain killers include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), of which there are several types, as well as opioids, also called narcotics. The types of NSAIDs are called by various names, one grouping being conventional NSAIDs, semi-selective NSAIDs and COX-2 (selective) NSAIDs. But the Food and Drug Administration only reports selective and non-selective categories. Sometimes referred to as super aspirins, the COX-2 inhibitors don’t cause the stomach problems associated with aspirin, and can be given in higher doses.

Pain killers are usually developed and marketed by pharmaceutical companies for general or specific healthcare applications. They are divided in the industry by whether they are available over the counter (OTC) or require a prescription. Both categories of drugs can be abused.

Drugs or substances that are not sold OTC are divided into five schedules, labeled with Roman numerals. Schedule I is for drugs for which there is no currently acceptable medical usage in the U.S. It includes, for example, heroin, LSD, and marijuana. For Schedules II-V, all drugs with medical use, the least restricted is Schedule V, which includes medications like cough medicines with codeine; the most restrictive is Schedule II, which includes morphine, cocaine, and methadone.

Here are some of the familiar brands of pain killers, including NSAIDs and opiates. There are many OTC preparations that include the non-selective NSAIDS ibuprofin. Also, there are a group of medicines used to treat more severe pain that combines NSAIDs and opioids. Combinations are not included in the chart.

Not NSAIDs or Opioids
Brand Name Chemical Name
Tylenol, Anacin-3, Tempra, etc. Acetaminophen
Ultram Tramadol

Non-selective NSAIDs • OTC Medications
Brand Name Chemical Name
Aleve, Naprosyn, Anaprox, Anaprox DS, EC-Naproxyn, Naprelan Naproxen
Ansaid Flurbiprofen
Aspirin Acid Acetylsalicylic
Cataflam, Voltaren Diclofenac
Clinoril Sulindac
Daypro Oxaprozin
Disalcid Salsalate
Dolobid Diflunisal
Feldene Piroxicam
Indocin, Indocin SR, Indo-Lemmon, Indomethegan Indomethacin
Lodine, Lodine XL Etodolac
Mobic Meloxicam
Motrin, Motrin IB, Motrin Migraine Pain, Advil, Advil Migraine Liqui-gels, Ibu-Tab 200, Medipren, Cap-Profen, Tab-Profen, Profen, Ibuprohm Ibuprofen
Nalfon, Nalfon 200 Fenoprofen
Oruvail, Orudis, Actron Ketoprofen
Ponstel Mefenamic Acid
Relafen Nabumetone
Tolectin, Tolectin DS, Tolectin 600 Tolmetin
Toradol Ketorolac
COX-2 Selective NSAIDs
Brand Name Chemical Name
Bextra Valdecoxib
Celebrex Celecoxib
Vioxx Rofecoxib

History of Pain Killers

  • Aspirin

Salicin from powdered willow bark was used as early as the 4th-5th century B.C. by the Greek physician Hippocrates. A form of it, sodium salicylate, was still being used in the nineteenth century when a German chemist, Felix Hoffman, wanted to modify the substance to ease the stomach pain his arthritic father had when taking sodium salicylate. In 1897, he created acetylsalicylic acid • aspirin.

  • Acetaminophen

In nineteenth century France, a pain reliever, phenacetin, which was discovered to have fever-reducing properties, was used. In 1899, German scientist Karl Morner discovered that the body metabolizes phenacetin to make acetaminophen, which turned out to be safer. McNeil Laboratories first marketed acetaminophen in 1953. 

  • NSAIDs and COX-2 Selective NSAIDs

In the 1960s, indomethacin, the first NSAID, was discovered by Professor Tsung-Ying Shen. The COX-2 inhibitors were discovered in 1991 by W. L. Xie and colleagues, and the products Celebrex and Vioxx came to market in 1998-1999.

Grown as early as 3400 B.C., opium was cultivated by the Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians. Opium was used as a narcotic by Hippocrates, introduced to Persia and India by Alexander the Great, and used as a painkillers by Paracelsus during the Renaissance. In 1803, German Friedrich Sertuerner discoverd morphine, and in 1843, a Scottish doctor, Dr. Alexander Wood, first administered it by injection with a syringe. Heroin was first synthesized in 1874, by an English scientist, C. R. Wright, and first sold by The Bayer Company in 1898.

The History of Pain Killers Sources:

  • dea.gov
  • “Pain.” Rebecca Frey PhD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Neurological Disorders, 2005
  • healthsentinel.com
  • medicinenet.com
  • nlm.nih.gov
  • infoplease.com
  • chemheritage.org
  • pharm.chula.ac.th
  • campus.manchester.ac.uk
  • newhope.com
  • pbs.org

Related Article: Pain Killers Statistics and Effects >>

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