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How does Aspirin work?

Today, 80,000,000 tablets of aspirin are taken daily by Americans not only for its headache-relieving power, but also to relieve fevers and even prevent heart-attacks. How does aspirin do all these things? To understand this you need to learn how aspirin works in your body.

Let’s look at how aspirin cures a tension headache. A headache can occur when the muscles in your head begin to tighten. What tells these muscles to tighten is a chemical called prostaglandin. This chemical is produced in the body in response to stress. Aspirin stops the production of prostaglandin and therefore stops the headache or pain. Aspirin is helpful for a lot of other illnesses because prostaglandin is involved in many different bodily functions. For example, prostaglandin is important to blood-clotting which can lead to a heart-attack.

Although a form of aspirin was known as a fever- and pain-relieving substance from the bark of willow trees for centuries, the modern form of aspirin was produced in a chemistry lab in 1897 by a German chemist, Felix Hoffman. He found that aspirin treated his father’s arthritis. It was not until 1971, however, that doctors figured out how aspirin produces these effects in our bodies. In 1982, Sir John Vane, shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the importance of prostaglandin in our bodies. Today, doctors are looking at aspirin in the prevention of bowel cancer. To learn more about aspirin, visit the aspirin web site.


Anne J. McNeil

  • Post-doctoral Researcher
  • MIT, Department of Chemistry

Research Area:
Organic and Polymer Chemistry
Running, Reading, Cheering for the Boston Red Sox

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