Although it was not originally known as aspirin, this particular drug has been around for many years and historical documents show that the Greek physician Hippocrates used a form of aspirin extracted from the bark of willow trees to treat fever more than 2,500 years ago.
Aspirin as we know it today was however developed by the chemist Felix Hoffman who was working for the German company of Bayer towards the end of the 19th century. Today the humble aspirin has proved to be one of the most successful drugs ever created.
As long as aspirin is taken at its recommended dosage it exhibits very few side effects and can be used to treat everything from fever and inflammation to heart disease. And, of course, it is also commonly used to treat headaches.
Whenever an injury occurs to the tissue of the body prostaglandins are released which send nerve signals to the brain, including signals which contribute to the sensation of pain, and also contribute to the swelling which occurs at the site of the injury. Aspirin works to suppress the production of prostaglandin by binding to an enzyme which forms part of the production process.
The problem when it comes to trying to work out why aspirin works in the case of a headache lies in defining just what sort of 'injury' gives rise to the headache in the first place.
For example, it has been thought for many years that tension-type headaches are caused by muscle tension in the face, neck and back and that the stretching and compression of the muscles gives rise to inflammation, which is the injury leading to a headache. Today however, while muscle tension may well still be involved in the production of a headache, it is thought that the interaction of brain chemicals such as serotonin with the nerve cells of the brain plays a much more important role.
One of the greatest dangers with aspirin is that it can be too effective and as well as removing prostaglandins at the site of an injury it also removes prostaglandins from the stomach which, over time, weakens the lining of the stomach and leads to stomach upsets and ulcers.
Another problem with aspirin is that it 'thins the blood' because prostaglandins are also necessary for blood clotting.
This is why aspirin is often used as a preventative medication for some heart conditions, but it can cause problems when it comes to stopping bleeding following a cut or in the event of a nose bleed.
Today we consume well over 80 billion aspirin tablets every year and the evidence shows that, used properly, it is a very effective and safe form of medication which will continue to be used to treat conditions such as headaches for many years to come.