Caffeine Gives a Boost to Painkillers

Caffeine Gives a Boost to Painkillers

A cup of coffee in the morning will not only help wake you up – it also improves the effectiveness of pain relieving drugs, according to a new British study.

Caffeine has long been added to over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol (Tylenol), ibuprofen and aspirin, in the belief that it enhances their pain relieving effects. However, evidence to support the use of caffeine in analgesics is limited and was largely based on a handful of studies conducted nearly 30 years ago.

To update the research, a team at the University of Oxford collected data from 19 modern, double-blind studies that compared patients who took a painkiller to those who received the same medication plus 100 to 130 mg of caffeine, a dose equivalent to a cup of coffee. Over 7,200 patients in the studies took mostly paracetamol or ibuprofen for a variety of painful conditions, including post-operative dental pain, postpartum pain and headache.

“There was a small but statistically significant benefit with caffeine used at doses of 100 mg or more, which was not dependent on the pain condition or type of analgesic,” wrote lead author Sheena Derry, a senior research officer at University of Oxford. About 5% to 10% of the patients achieved “a good deal of pain relief” with the addition of caffeine. They considered their treatment very good or excellent and had relief from a headache after two hours.

Caffeine acts as a stimulant to the central nervous system, helping to improve concentration and lessen fatigue. Why it boosts the effectiveness of painkillers is not clear. Caffeine could help medication get into the bloodstream faster or it may change the way nerves process pain. It could also change how people perceive pain by affecting their moods or emotions.

The study was published in the Cochrane Library by the Cochrane Collaboration, a respected international research group.

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Authored by: Pat Anson, Editor