Nitroglycerin: Explosive Heart Medication

Nitroglycerin: Explosive Heart Medication

[Theme song] Imagine a substance so potent that depending on how you use it, it could blow you to pieces, or it could save your life. This stuff exists, and you’ve probably heard of it. It’s called nitroglycerin. Nitroglycerin was first discovered in 1847 by an Italian chemist named Ascanio Sobrero, who was experimenting with acids derived from plants. This brand new compound he synthesized was an oily liquid, with some unusual characteristics. When he tasted a small amount he found that it was sweet, but gave him a violent headache that lasted for hours Apparently he never got the memo that you’re not supposed to just put a mysterious chemical in your mouth to see what it tasted like. Sobrero quickly discovered that the substance had another more dangerous property. Even a small physical knock could cause it to detonate, producing a powerful explosion. He showed off nitroglycerin’s amazing power by detonating a small amount in front of a packed lecture hall. Nitroglycerin explosions were hard to control though to the point that Sobrero himself was eventually badly scarred by a later explosion in his lab. The explosive force lies in nitroglycerine’s molecular structure. Each molecule is made up of three nitrate groups bound to a chain of carbons. In general, you need two main things for combustion to happen: fuel, and an oxidizing agent, which removes electrons from molecules of fuel to keep the reaction going. The most common oxidizing agent is oxygen which is why fires normally need air to keep going, but those three nitrate groups, and each nitroglycerin molecule, are powerful oxidizing agents themselves, so once an explosive reaction is started, it doesn’t need oxygen to sustain itself. Everything the reaction needs is right there in the molecules. Because nitroglycerin is so unstable, it’s not actually very useful as an explosive in its pure form. It’s just too hard to control. But in 1864 the Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel patented a process for making nitroglycerine more stable, so that it could be set off on demand, with a detonator. Nobel named his creation dynamite, and it turned out that the ingredient that made a deadly explosive had another life-saving property, hinted at when workers in dynamite factories noticed that coming into contact with nitroglycerine seemed to ease chest pains. Around the same time that Nobel was inventing dynamite, scientists and doctors began noting the effects of nitrate compounds on the heart, and experimenting with using them to treat chest pain. At first they used a different chemical called amyl nitrite, a compound that we now know has a nitrite group that dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure. This increases the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart and keeps it from having to work so hard, But at the time no one knew why amyl nitrite worked only that it did. They didn’t think to try nitroglycerin for a couple more decades. The first attempt at a medicinal use for nitroglycerin was a headache treatment by people who believed in homeopathy. Homeopathy has no scientific basis but its main principle is that “like cures like”, that is when a lot of something causes a symptom, a small amount of that same thing can cure the symptoms. Since nitroglycerin cause violent headaches, early homeopaths thought that small doses of it could relieve them. It didn’t really work. But by around 1880, doctors began to realize that nitroglycerine was even more effective and faster acting for heart problems than amyl nitrite. Even after it became an accepted treatment for angina, the technical term for chest pain. What exactly nitroglycerine does to the circulatory system remained a mystery for a long time. It wasn’t until the 20th century that scientists finally figured out the mechanism at work. Your body converts nitroglycerin to nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels, and lowers blood pressure. So nitroglycerine works a lot like amyl nitrite once it’s inside the human body. If you or someone you know has been prescribed nitroglycerin tablets though, you don’t see any warning labels about possible explosion. The pills only contain a very small amount of nitroglycerin diluted with inert material to make it safe. But they can still set off those bomb-sniffing machines at airport security. Thank you for watching this episode of SciShow and special thanks to all of our patrons on Patreon. If you’d like to help us keep making episodes like this, go to and for more science everyday go to and subscribe!

100 comments on “Nitroglycerin: Explosive Heart Medication

  1. Tesserex Post author

    I have an image in my head of some homeopath making a nitroglycerin preparation. It gets funny when you remember that the main step of a homeopathic preparation is "succussion", i.e. striking the container really hard…

  2. Tfin Post author

    Obviously, the only reason it didn't work for headaches is that they weren't using a small enough dose. For it to work, you need a pill that contains a drop of water that has heard a vague rumor that there may once have been a molecule of nitroglycerine in a container it once passed near.

  3. A R Post author

    Homeopaths are the worst.. and theres NO explaining to these people that 2 micrograms of some bullshit magic silver isnt gonna do shit for you.. think logically, not just with a tinfoil hat..

  4. Pan Limak Post author

    So should I just buy and take small doses of medical nitroglycerin every now and then just because it makes it easier for the heart?

  5. Science101 Post author

    I Jesuit thought about this after the simpsons, and tried to look for a yt vid. Found this had been out for a few hours!

  6. Seán Tripp Post author

    Nitroglycerin was classified as a Schedule 3 medication, the same classification as aspirin…

    Cannabis is a schedule 1… Go figure

  7. Bruno Oliveira Post author

    Nitroglycerin has three NITRO
    groups (NO2), which are different from nitrate groups (NO3).

  8. Dr Gutowski Post author

    Hey now, if chemists didn't stick their experiments in their mouths we wouldn't have bubblegum!

  9. The Cat With a Top Hat Post author

    Awesome, I was taking a Red Cross Wilderness First Aid course last summer and our instructor mentioned Nitroglycerin to which I had to ask if he was talking about the same Nitroglycerin that is known for being an explosive, an its nice to get greater clarification than a simple, yes but no.

  10. RavenRune Post author

    My father uses a nitroglycerin spray for his angina. I remember seeing the label and thinking about dynamite. This clears up my confusion, thanks!

  11. L33TNINJ4Grrl Post author

    Don't take nitrate medication with Viagra. You'll hemorrhage and die. And if you doubt random youtube comments, please look it up.

  12. Ross Parlette Post author

    When I was in college, I used a box (in my closet) which had contained dynamite. Apparently some of the nitroglycerin had leached out into the cardboard, since I started getting headaches (I have very low BP). I realized what was happening, got rid of the box, washed everything in it, and the problem went away.

  13. Jonathan Jee Post author

    Fun fact:
    Nobel himself suffered from heart problems, and his doctor suggested that he eat nitroglycerin. Nobel refused to ingest what he considered to be an explosive, and he ultimately died of heart complications.

  14. Miscellaneous Chaotic Lab Post author

    One critical thing you've missed to mention: this drug has to be placed under the tongue in order to make it effective. If you swallow it, it will be absorbed via the g.i. tract and go through the liver metabolism and lose its function then.

    Also this drug should not be used as in preventive manner because your body will built tolerance to it under prolonged exposure. It should be used when symptom occur.

  15. Vegaspsycho Post author

    Race car driver and builder Carroll Shelby would pop nitro tablets all the time.
    In his final race at Laguna Seca he clinched the championship by finishing second, then promptly complained to the press that he would have won the damned thing had he not had to slow down to take his heart medications while driving.

  16. Damn Surfer Post author

    in Costa Rica they put it in liquor, I think it's called Guaro. I wonder what the science behind drinking alcohol and having low blood pressure is?

  17. MusiCanines - The Musical Dogs Post author

    What if I freeze nitroglycerin? Will it still be dangerous? What's its freezing point?

  18. Carlos Manuel Albana Post author

    Thank you very much for this! I've always wondered how nitroglycerin could be used as a medicine

  19. mrlookiki Post author

    why is this video need personally thought it was common knowledge my dad uses this stuff in a spray bottle coz of his heart

  20. Joshua Melot Post author

    Nitro DECREASES blood flow to the heart, decreasing Preload and work of the heart. It doesn't INCREASE Blood flow. Minor mistake, but kinda important

  21. SpySappingMyKeyboard Post author

    How do they prevent the headaches? Is there just not enough to cause them in heart medication?

  22. ssuo ben Post author

    wait the guy just fucking put it in his mouth ? does he play skyrim ? IS THAT A THING SCIENTISTS DO !

  23. Vlad Svoka Post author

    TL;DR: don't try to make it at home.
    When I was in university, three students decided to make some nitroglycerin (NG) in the dorm. It exploded in the process. One of them died, another got severe face burn, became and ultimately didn't recover from mental trauma, third, beside burns lost and eye, hand and 3 fingers on another hand. Dorm's room where they was "cooking" had it's walls slightly shifted/expanded. Whole building and couple neighbour lost all their glass windows.

    Do not try making explosives at home. Besides, being quite illegal, it is extremely dangerous. Those three was excellent students and had bright future in chemistry if not for this decision and consequent accident.

  24. Ivin3690 Post author

    ingesting TNT to cure chest pains sounds like something Cave Johnson would have done while holed up 4 miles below the surface and yelling at hobos pissing in his elevators.

  25. Monkeyb00y Post author

    I'm surprised they didn't talk about Nitroglycerin medicine and Viagra. If you take them together, your blood pressure will drop to deadly levels.

  26. Katelyn Dawn Post author

    It’a very interesting that a compound that was initially used for bombs is something that people put into their bodies, hoping to relieve pain in one of the most delicate organs. Even though it has been proved to work for countless years, it makes me wonder if it could potentially hurt somebody. If, perhaps, somebody attempted to overdose on pills that contained nitroglycerin, would they die of heart and blood vessel related issues, or would there be even the slightest possibility that the nitroglycerin could combust inside them? Even though the video didn’t speak on that, I would be interested to know the answer.

  27. Joshua Jarvis Post author

    Ever notice heart medicines tend to be made from the deadliest of substances. Explosives? Yep nitroglycerin. Rat poison? Yep warfarin. Medieval assassins poison? Yep, digitalis.

  28. alyssa Post author


  29. QuiveryCorn 570 Post author

    Acabo de ver el tema de las aminas, anilinas y acidos carboxilicos
    Buen video para reforzar el conocimiento

  30. Nazar Derkach Post author

    Nitroglycerin: it can either be used as an explosive or as a medicine against heart problems.
    Nuclear fusion: it can either be used in bombs which could obliterate entire cities or to generate electricity.
    Hammer effect works!

  31. Beth Lewis Post author

    Oh, and the smokes in that cigarette box on table,
    They just so happen to be laced with nitroglycerin

  32. catwesage Post author

    One point to contend. Nitroglycerin's main mechanism of action is actually to dilate the smooth vascular muscles in your body, which leads to decreased venous return and a smaller preload. This decreased preload means that your heart will not need to exert as much effort in systole. Less effort = less oxygen required. Less oxygen required = less ischemic damage. Source: Medical Student

  33. psudo heisen Post author

    Terrorist: i need heart medicine
    Actully uses to make dynamite
    its dynamite it!

  34. Taylor Clark Post author

    As someone who had to take nitroglycerin during a tilt table, the way it knocked me out made me feel like I got hit by a bomb when I came to.

  35. Nerine Post author

    Interesting video. Especially the NTG pills setting off a bomb detector! It's a blast!😜🤪😝


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