Most people think of them as innocent little pills. Headache, pop one; backache, take another; arthritis, take them all the time. But those innocent looking bottles of pain relief may carry some serious health risks. I’m referring to the NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) in just about everyone’s medicine cabinet. You know them by the names ibuprofen, (Advil and Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve), aspirin and acetaminophen (Tylenol). NSAIDs are estimated to be responsible for up to 20 percent of hospital admissions for congestive heart failure (1).
According to the latest research from Copenhagen University, heart attack survivors taking ibuprofen-based NSAIDs were 45 percent more likely to suffer a second attack when taking NSAIDs, especially at prescription dosages (2). Studies showing a variety of toxic effects from NSAIDs have been around for years, yet these studies receive little attention. In 2007, a study showed that NSAIDs had been found to increase an existing risk of heart attack or stroke in people who suffer from arthritis (3).
Data analyzed on 114,460 women in the California Teachers Study showed “Ibuprofen use was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, and long-term daily aspirin use was associated with an increased risk of ER/PR-negative breast cancer (4).” High blood pressure is also correlated to NSAID use (5).
Even though the FDA now requires a black box warning on some NSAIDs (the strongest warning possible on an over-the-counter product) the general public seems unaware of the very real dangers of taking NSAIDs long term and at high doses.
Beyond the risk factors, there are side effects of NSAIDs use you should be familiar with. Stomach upset or indigestion is the most common side-effect, including nausea, vomiting, heart-burn (otherwise known as GERD) , bleeding stomach ulcers and diarrhea, as well as other GI events (i.e. gastrointestinal bleeding) with ibuprofen based NSAIDs. Liver damage can also result from acetaminophen based pain killers. Hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations each year result from overuse of these drugs, many from unnecessary prescriptions (6). Other common adverse reactions to NSAIDs include higher than normal liver enzymes, constipation, headaches and possible allergies.
Over-the-counter (OTC) doesn’t necessarily mean it’s completely safe. Depending on your own use and dosage, side effects can be minimized and these products can be used safely. But you should be aware that relying on NSAIDs to manage severe to even moderate pain does carry risks.
Eastern medicine philosophies recognize pain as the body’s early warning signal. It’s the lights blinking at the train track telling you stop, look and listen to your body. It wants to tell you something is wrong. When you take NSAIDs, you mask these pain signals and possibly ignore your body’s warning signs. Even though big box stores sell ibuprofen in bottles of 250 and 500 pills to a bottle, not all Americans seem to have bought into the idea that quick fix pill popping for pain is the only answer.