Aspirin tabletsExploring Aspirin: Definition and Mechanism of Action

You probably keep it in your medicine cabinet. Whether you’re taking it to stave off everyday aches and pains or reduce your risk of cardiovascular events, aspirin has been a staple for more than a century. But what is it and how does it work in the body?

What is aspirin?

Spirea (Credit: Diana Dimitrova/Shutterstock)

Aspirin is made from salicylic acid, an organic compound found in a common shrub called Spiraea. White willow bark also contains the natural element of the medicine. It has been used naturally for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians use it for joint pain and Hippocrates they recommend it for childbirth.

White willow bark (Credit: P Maxwell Photography/Shutterstock)

In 1763, the British scientist Edward Stone conducted the first experiments to show the strength of willow bark. Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, he said he had discovered a miracle cure in the bark of an English tree. “I found it [it] experienced to be a powerful astringent and very efficacious in the treatment of suffering and periodical disorders.”

A century later, in 1874, British physician Thomas MacLagan used salicin, the active ingredient in aspirin, on his patients with rheumatic fever. After gradually increasing the dose for himself to test its safety, MacLagan began giving it to his patients. His accounts are published in Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

“The sudden cessation of the painful symptoms, and the concomitant rapid fall of the pulse and temperature, followed so immediately upon the administration of salicin, that it is impossible not to attribute them to its use.”

Read more: Prehistoric Medicine: How Archaic People Healed Themselves

How does aspirin work?

While aspirin seems like a basic drug, its effects on the body are complex. We feel pain after trauma in the body sends signals of that pain to the brain. The lipids produced by pain in the cells go into an enzyme called cyclooxygenase which then causes the production of prostaglandins, a group of hormone-like lipids that create and regulate pain and inflammation at the site of tissue damage or infection.

Inside the enzyme, these lipids form pain-transmitting substances that attach to pain receptors on nerve endings and then transmit pain signals to the brain. Aspirin is a member of a class of drugs known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which work by blocking the enzyme that causes inflammation so that it cannot produce pain signals.

Aspirin for blood clots

The drug is also a powerful tool to reduce the risk of blood clots. Blood clots form when fibrin, the protein strands that form a mesh in blood vessels, begin to clump together, causing platelets and cells to stick together and become trapped in the mesh. In this case, aspirin interrupts the formation of clots.

This can form a clot, but aspirin makes the cells and platelets less sticky so they don’t stick together and block arteries. However, you should not take aspirin every day unless you are at increased risk of cardiovascular events and your doctor has recommended it. The drug may reduce the ability to clot in some people and increase the risk of bleeding.

Aspirin is a miracle drug that has been around for thousands of years naturally and in its current form for a century. And although we may not have always understood the mechanism of how it works in the body, we have long known that it is effective. From joint pain to fever and anti-clotting, you don’t need to know why it works to know it works.

Read more: Despite the dangers, millions of Americans still take aspirin every day

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