Nitroglycerin: Explosive Heart Medication

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 tastes like sobre Oro 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 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 nitroglycerin x' molecular structure each molecule is made up of three nitrate groups bound to a chain of carbon 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 in 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 nitroglycerin 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 and dynamite factories noticed that coming into contact with nitroglycerin 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 lights 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 as a headache treatment by people who believed in homeopathy homeopathy has no scientific basis but its main principle is that like here's like that is when a lot of something causes a symptom a small amount of that same thing can cure the symptoms since nitroglycerin caused violent headaches early homeopathy thought that small doses of it could relieve them it didn't really work but by around 1880 doctors began to realize that nitroglycerin 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 nitroglycerin 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 nitroglycerin 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 won't see any warning labels about possible explosions 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 every day go to and subscribe of medication prescribed for a few different reasons mainly heart conditions and anxiety but how does a drug that treats heart failure


  1. Nitroglycerin doesn't detonate when you light it, but when you apply physical force to it, the molecule breaks up into things like NO and CO2. All the gases produced are already very hot, and the gases expand faster than the speed of sound.

  2. Also, you shouldn't handle nitroglycerin (in pure form) unless you are a experienced chemist. Also, to demonstrate nitroglycerin explosions, they normally film a video of it exploding and then show it, to make sure nobody gets injured.

  3. 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

  4. 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!

  5. I only know Nitroglycerin from a Simpsons episode where Sideshow Bob got his Nitroglycerin kicked over by Bart

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