Your guide to prescription painkillers

Lesley Dobson / 25 February 2015

Prescription pain killers can be targeted at the cause and type of pain you’re experiencing, so stand a better chance of being effective. Here is our introduction to some of the main prescription painkillers.



What is codeine?

Codeine is an opioid analgesic – this means that it is a drug derived from morphine.

What form does codeine come in?

Codeine comes as tablets.

Why is codeine prescribed?

Codeine is used to combat pain that can’t be treated using over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen. It is most often used for moderate to severe pain.

Questions you should ask your doctor about codeine

  • Can I become addicted to codeine?
  • What are the risks associated with taking codeine?
  • Are there any foods and drinks I should avoid while taking codeine?
  • Is it safe to drive while taking codeine?
  • What should I do if I accidentally take too much codeine?

What are the side effects of codeine?

As well as relieving your pain, codeine can make you feel calm, relaxed and sleepy. However, codeine can also have less pleasant side effects, such as constipation, nausea, vomiting, confusion, loss of appetite and mood swings.

Go back to your doctor if...

... you develop any of these symptoms – 

  • drowsiness 
  • hallucinations 
  • shaking or muscle twitching 
  • painful/sensitive skin

This may mean that you are on too high a dose, and need to have it reduced. You should also see your doctor if your pain is getting worse, and if you are having serious side effects.

What is tramadol?

Tramadol is a strong opioid painkiller, which is used to tackle moderate to severe pain levels. It can come in different strengths, so you may not have the same as someone else taking this drug.

What form does tramadol come in?

Tramadol come as tablets or capsules, slow-release tablets or capsules, as tablets that dissolve on your tongue, and as an injection.   

Why is tramadol prescribed?

You may be prescribed Tramadol for moderate to severe pain.

Questions to ask your doctor about tramadol

  • Can I become addicted to tramadol?
  • What are the risks associated with taking tramadol?
  • Are there any foods and drinks I should avoid while taking tramadol?
  • Is it safe to drive while taking tramadol?
  • What should I do if I accidentally take too much tramadol?

What are the potential side effects of tramadol?

Like other opioids, tramadol can cause constipation, nausea, a dry mouth, itchy skin, and blurred vision.

Go back to your doctor if...

... you develop any of these symptoms – 

  • drowsiness 
  • hallucinations 
  • shaking or muscle twitching 
  • painful/sensitive skin

This may mean that you are on too high a dose.  

What is morphine?

This is a strong opioid, and is usually prescribed for severe pain.

What form does morphine come in?

Morphine comes as a tablet or liquid, slow release tablets, capsules or powders. It also comes as an injection or through a drip, as suppositories, tablets that dissolve under your tongue, and as patches that stick on to your skin.

Why is morphine prescribed?

Morphine is usually prescribed to treat severe pain, and to relieve pain following an operation.

Questions to ask your doctor about morphine

  • Can I become addicted to morphine?
  • What are the risks associated with taking morphine?
  • Are there any foods and drinks I should avoid while taking morphine?
  • Is it safe to drive while taking morphine?
  • What should I do if I accidentally take too much morphine?

What are the potential side effects of morphine?

Side effects include feeling and/or being sick, constipation, dry mouth, blurred vision, trouble going to the loo (passing urine), and itchy skin.

Go back to your doctor if...

...you develop any of these symptoms – 

  • drowsiness 
  • hallucinations 
  • shaking or muscle twitching 
  • painful/sensitive skin 

This may mean that you are on too high a dose.  

What is amitriptyline?

Amitriptyline is a tricyclic antidepressant, but it also works in a different way, as a pain reliever for people who have neuropathic pain, also known as neuralgia.

What form does amitriptyline come in?

Amitriptyline comes in the form of small pills, or as a syrup. Your doctor will usually prescribe a low dose – 10 to 25mg each day, and, as long as you don’t have extreme side effects, will increase it up to about 75mg, or more, if needed.

Why is amitriptyline prescribed?

Tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline are regularly prescribed for people with neuropathic pain, because they offer the best pain relief for people with this type of pain. Neuropathic pain has a variety of causes, including pain after  chemotherapy or shingles, diabetic neuropathy, multiple sclerosis and alcoholism.

Questions to ask your doctor about amitriptyline

  • Can I become addicted to amitriptyline?
  • What are the risks associated with taking amitriptyline?
  • Are there any foods and drinks I should avoid while taking amitriptyline?
  • Is it safe to drive while taking amitriptyline?
  • What should I do if I accidentally take too much amitriptyline?

Side effects of amitriptyline

These can include dry mouth, nausea, sleepiness, dizziness and constipation, however only 5 – 15% of people have side effects with this drug.

Go back to your GP if...

... you are having side-effects that are interfering with your life or putting you at risk, or if the medication isn’t giving you enough pain relief.

What is oxycodone?

Oxycodone is an opioid, and so is in the same group as codeine, tramadol and morphine.

What form does oxycodone come in?

Oxycodone comes as a liquid to swallow, capsules to swallow, or as a liquid that is injected (All of these are known as Oxynorm). This drug also comes in the form of a slow release tablet.

Why is oxycodone prescribed?

Your doctor may prescribe oxycodone if you have bone and nerve pain, and morphine has caused unpleasant side effects, or hasn’t helped reduce your pain.

Questions you should ask your doctor about oxycodone

  • Can I become addicted to oxycodone?
  • What are the risks associated with taking oxycodone?
  • Are there any foods and drinks I should avoid while taking oxycodone?
  • Is it safe to drive while taking oxycodone?
  • What should I do if I accidentally take too much oxycodone?

What are the side effects of oxycodone?

The most common side effects are feeling dizzy, drowsy or sleepy, having a headache, stomach pains, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and constipation. You may also have mildly itchy skin and/or a dry mouth. More extreme reactions can include a slow heartbeat, shallow breathing, confusion and convulsions.

Go back to your doctor if...

... you develop any of the symptoms listed above, or any other symptoms that make you feel ill or make normal life difficult.

If you have severe symptoms get medical help straight away.

What is gabapentin?

Gabapentin is an anti-epileptic medication. It reduces pain levels by working on certain chemicals and nerves in the body that contribute to some types of pain,(and to epileptic seizures).

What form does gabapentin come in?

Gabapentin is available as tablets, capsules, and liquid to be swallowed.

Why is gabapentin prescribed?

Gabapentin is prescribed to treat neuropathic pain. This type of pain can be caused by diabetes and shingles which can both cause damage to nerves and as a result, cause long-term pain.

Questions you should ask your doctor about gabapentin

  • Can I become addicted to gabapentin?
  • What are the risks associated with taking gabapentin?
  • Are there any foods and drinks I should avoid while taking gabapentin?
  • Is it safe to drive while taking gabapentin?
  • What should I do if I accidentally take too much gabapentin?

What are the side effects of gabapentin?

The most common include feeling sleepy, dizzy, sick or having a stomach ache. You may actually be sick, or have diarrhoea and constipation. Other symptoms include breathing problems, flushing, fluey symptoms and muscle or joint pains. It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor if these affect you.

Go back to your doctor if you have...

  • ongoing stomach pain along with being sick 
  • a rash, or a yellow tint to your eyes or skin 
  • bruising or bleeding

See your doctor as soon as possible, as these symptoms could be the result of more serious side effects.

What is pregabalin?

Pregabalin is a drug that is used to treat neuropathic pain. It is also used to treat anxiety disorder and partial epilepsy – a type of epilepsy.

What form does pregabalin come in? Pregabalin comes as capsules, or as a liquid which you take using a syringe adaptor to put the right dose into your mouth.

Why is pregabalin prescribed?

Pregabalin is prescribed to treat long-term pain that’s caused by nerve damage. This is also known as neuropathic pain, and can be a result of a variety of conditions, for instance, diabetes and shingles.

Questions you should ask your doctor about pregabalin

  • Can I become addicted to pregabalin?
  • What are the risks associated with taking pregabalin?
  • Are there any foods and drinks I should avoid while taking pregabalin?
  • Is it safe to drive while taking pregabalin?
  • What should I do if I accidentally take too much pregabalin?

What are the side effects of pregabalin?

Side effects can include tiredness and dizziness, headaches, nausea and vomiting. You may also have constipation, bloating and wind, feel confused and have trouble concentrating. Some people experience a loss of balance and coordination and muscle twitching.

Go back to your doctor if...

...you have severe symptoms that cause you pain and/or distress, and affect how you live. Also see your doctor if you feel that the dose you have is not effective (allowing time for the drug to start working).  

What are triptans?

Triptans are a group of medicines that should be used at the beginning of a migraine attack. The group includes a number of different triptans, including almotriptan, frovatriptan and sumatriptan. If one triptan doesn’t help you, talk to your doctor about trying a different one.

What form do triptans come in?

Triptans come as tablets, injections and nasal sprays.

Why are triptans prescribed?

Doctors may prescribe triptans to help reduce the pain of migraines and cluster headaches. One of the ways they work is by narrowing dilated blood vessels in the brain, that are believed to be involved in causing migraine, and so reducing pain..

Questions you should ask your doctor about triptans

  • Can I become addicted to drugs in the triptans group?
  • What are the risks associated with taking triptans drugs?
  • Are there any foods and drinks I should avoid while taking triptans drugs?
  • What should I do if I accidentally take too much of my triptans drug?

What are the side effects of triptans?

These can include tingling, feelings of heaviness in your chest, arms, legs and face, drowsiness and nausea.

Go back to your doctor if...

... you are having extreme side effects or feel that, despite taking the drug as directed, and for the length of the course, it isn’t helping. Your doctor my prescribe a different triptans drug.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.