Anti-inflammatory, over-the-counter medications like Aleve, Advil and Motrin as well as prescription pills are taken routinely for various types of aches and pains. These medications, along with aspirin, are often classified together as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Though these can be helpful for pain, they carry with them the possibility of significant problems. Pain is a common symptom, and these medications are regularly available. This has lead to dramatic costs in terms of side effects.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are a regular part of life for many. The question becomes whether the general public really understands the risks of these medications. NSAIDs have been over-the-counter for several years, so access is not a problem. Used occasionally, NSAIDs can provide relief of pain such as headaches, sports injuries or arthritis. For a large percentage of the millions of Americans who take these drugs, NSAIDs are an intricate part of a daily regimen. We become more prone to side effects from these medications the longer we use them and combine them with other medications. Even aging presents further risk of side effects.
The most concerning category of side effects for many NSAID users involves the gastrointestinal tract. NSAIDs pose a high risk for upset stomach and indigestion [Source: Jones]. The formation of an ulcer is a potential concern for anyone regularly using NSAIDs. These pain meds can cause this by thinning the protective layer of the stomach and blocking the secretion of bicarbonate which helps balance the pH level of the gut [Source: Jones]. This can put the body at great risk for a gastrointestinal bleed. This bleeding occurs along any part of the GI tract, which can happen directly at the site of an ulcer. These side effects can create a tremendous financial cost. Up to 30 percent of the cost for treating arthritis with NSAID use is related to the intestinal problems these medications cause [Source: Laine]. Up to 60 percent of patients using NSAIDs daily experience heartburn and 20 percent or more obtain an ulcer [Source: Jones]. The risk for GI bleed appears to be worse for those taking an NSAID with a type of antidepressant from the SSRI class [Source: Loke]. SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) include Prozac, Celexa, Paxil, Zoloft and Lexapro. These are commonly prescribed medications, and it is very reasonable to think that some SSRI users could also be regularly using NSAIDs.
NSAIDs are related to other serious problems as well. Patients with a history of kidney disease have to be very careful about using NSAIDs, possibly avoiding them completely. Congestive heart failure is one of the most common reasons why people over the age of 65 are admitted to the hospital [Source: Page]. NSAID use is known to pose risk for congestive heart failure and increase chances for admission [Source: Page]. This is a concern since someone could easily take an ibuprofen for a bad headache without realizing that it could seriously upset their fluid balance. NSAIDS can increase the risks associated with blood pressure as well [Source: Jones]. Complications from increased blood pressure and kidney problems are especially pronounced in the elderly [Source: Petrone]. The heart problems caused by a special class of these medications called COX-2 inhibitors (Vioxx, Bextra) were so significant that these medications were pulled off the market [Source: Bresalier].
All told, the side effects of NSAIDs are not small in numbers. NSAIDs are credited with causing 76,000 hospital admissions and over 7,600 deaths a year [Source: Mokdad, Tamblyn]. They are not the only options for those trying to ease chronic pain. NSAIDs can be compounded into creams that can be applied topically. These creams have been found to be effective for chronic pain and appear to bypass much of the high side effect rates seen with the pills taken orally [Source: Mason, Vaile]. Topical NSAIDs can still cause some of the problems seen in patients who have had serious problems with the oral NSAIDS. There are also many natural treatments to help with pain and inflammation. Turmeric, bromelain, essential fatty acids, glucosamine, MSM and boswellia are some of the many treatments available to help with pain. Many nutritional treatments like fish oils and turmeric not only help pain but can improve overall health in many areas of the body.
Occasional use of NSAIDS is not harmful, but daily use can lead to complications including intestinal ulcers and serious bleeding. Kidney and heart problems can also be worsened with NSAID use. Please ask your doctor if it is acceptable to take these medications if you have been taking them regularly. Also, consider other, more natural, options to treat pain and benefit the body.