It is well known that earthquakes, such as the recent one in Haiti, result in large numbers of people with kidney failure as a result of victims suffering crushing injuries.
Now, a new study has shown that just one tablet of commonly-used painkiller paracetamol (acetaminophen) could help save the lives of such earthquake survivors.
Experiments in rats, conducted by scientists at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, have shown that the drug prevents 'crush syndrome', or rhabdomyolysis, in which muscle debris from crushed limbs floods the kidneys soon after the limb is freed from rubble, causing them to fail.
"When you release the pressure on muscle through rescue, debris goes to the kidney. It's like a chain reaction, and acetaminophen blocks it," New Scientist quoted Olivier Boutaud of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and head of the research team, as saying.
The destruction of muscle through crushing leads to the release of myoglobin, a protein vital for delivering oxygen to muscle and other tissue.
When the myoglobin reaches the kidneys it clogs the tubules and produces harmful chemical agents called free radicals.
These free radicals destroy fatty membranes in the kidney, which die and turn black.
They also trigger constriction of blood vessels, cutting off blood flow to the kidney and halting filtration of blood, rapidly leading to death through kidney failure.
The condition became known as the "smiling death" in China after apparently uninjured victims died.
After inducing crush syndrome in rats via muscular injections of sugar, Boutaud and colleagues demonstrated that the human-equivalent dose of acetaminophen successfully blocked both of these processes, whether given before or shortly after the injury.
The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.