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Coffee As a Painkiller

Take Two of These And Call Us in the Morning

Coffee has been at the center of several health debates over the years. There have been scares about coffee addiction, how coffee effects overall health, and how coffee interacts with certain medications. One of these debates can be traced back to a 2007 study published by the University of Washington School of Pharmacy which explored the effects of mixing caffeine and acetaminophen, the active ingredient of Tylenol, Excedrin, and several other over-the-counter painkillers. Predictably, those studies were followed by a spate of panic-inducing headlines, all pointing to the toxicity of a caffeine-acetaminophen mix, and the liver damage that could result.

Thankfully, that wasn't the end of the story. Research continued, including a closer look at the UWSP's methodology. As Prevention noted in 2012, "A closer look at the actual study showed that creation of a toxic liver byproduct occurred when researchers used a caffeine amount equivalent to 20 cups of coffee ." Mixing coffee and Tylenol, in other words, was perfectly safe -- a point underscored by one of the study's authors, who pointed out that not only was the risk exceedingly small, but that acetaminophen was safer, with less risk of stomach bleeding, than aspirin or ibuprofen. Coffee drinkers, and OTC painkiller manufacturers, collectively breathed a sigh of relief.

At about the same time that Prevention published their article, the Center for Advancing Health (CFAH) reported on a Cochrane review of the peer-reviewed research around caffiene and analgesic effectiveness. They noted that there were multiple possibilities for the repeated reports of caffeine reducing pain levels, including raising drug concentrations, effecting nerve activity, and changing the subjects' perception of pain, characterizing the results as small but "probably clinically useful."

Against that background, new studies have come out three years after Prevention and others published their findings, and they're cause for still more (cautious) optimism. The Daily Mail notes that in an experiment by London's Goldsmiths College involving fifty men and women, each given a 250mg dose of caffeine, the women were able to submerge their arms in ice-cold water for a significantly longer period of time. The men in the group did not feel the same benefits. The study concluded that a single cup of coffee could work within minutes to reduce pain, though it noted that the benefits were only for the short term.

The latest news (as of this writing), however, has nothing to do with caffeine. According to the Japan Times, scientists at the University of Brasilia working in tandem with the state-owned Brazilian Agricultural Research Corp. (Embrapa), building on a project that sequenced the genome of coffee in 2004, found “previously unknown protein fragments” that had “analgesic and mildly tranquilizing” qualities. In mice, the effects were similar to, but longer lasting than, morphine, but the findings haven't yet been extended to research with human subjects.

As with much new research, the reasons for coffee's painkilling benefits are only partly understood. The Goldsmiths study cited above, for instance, cited increased blood pressure as the reason that the female study participants felt less pain. CFAH, in the meantime, posited that combining caffeine with painkillers could work along similar lines to adding adrenaline to Novocain: the stimulant would, by increasing the heart rate, increase the delivery of the medicine to the site of pain. It's also possible that part of the analgesic effect can be attributed to one or more of the nearly one thousand biological compounds known to be present in coffee.

The takeaway? Whether it's a tension headache, a migraine, a stubbed toe, or a hangover, a cup of coffee stands a good chance of making you feel much better. Next time you feel a headache coming on, fight back with a cup of our Liberty Lungo for your Nespresso.