MAY 12, 2017 10:36 AM PDT

Common Painkillers Tied to Increased Heart Attack Risks

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

A commonly prescribed drug for pain and inflammation may have a deadly consequence. Over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen, naproxen, and others in the group of drugs called NSAIDs have been recently linked to increased heart attacks. But though it sounds hopeless, people still shouldn’t swear off NSAIDs just yet.

Image credit: pixabay.com

Physical pain is nearly inevitable during the course of daily living, and NSAIDs are among the most common pain relievers in the world. Formally known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, NSAIDs are taken by over 30 million Americans for a variety of conditions, from headaches, to sprains, to ease menstrual cramps. But when it comes to health care, treatments are rarely without risks.

Indeed, previous studies have implicated NSAIDs in increasing the risks of having a heart attack. But no formal studies have been conducted on the specifics of this link.

To better understand the association between NSAID use and heart attack risks, researchers from the University of Montreal Hospital Research Center combed through the medical records of over 446,000 people in the Canadian and European databases. Of this, 61,460 suffered myocardial infarctions.

Using the data, Dr. Michèle Bally and her team found that some drugs, when used for even just one week, increased the risk by as much as 50 percent. The drug with the greatest risk increase was rofecoxib, followed by diclofenac, ibuprofen, and celecoxib. When drugs were taken at higher than over-the-counter-doses, the risk for heart attack jumped to 75 percent with one month use.

"We found that all common NSAIDs shared a heightened risk of heart attack," said Dr. Michèle Bally, the study’s senior investigator. "There is a perception that naproxen has the lowest cardiovascular risk (among the NSAIDs), but that's not true."

But there are good news. The increased risks did not seem permanent. That is, if a person stopped taking the NSAIDs, the risks for having a heart attack went back down. "This is relative to not taking these drugs, your baseline risk," Bally said. "The risk is not 75%. It's an increase (maybe) from a tiny baseline risk that they have."

Despite these results, should people chuck out their ibuprofen stash? Not so fast. NSAIDs are some of the most potent drugs we have against to regulate the body’s inflammation pathways. Drugs like celecoxib are quite effective at helping patients with inflammatory joint pains, like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Furthermore, some NSAIDs have recently been proposed to work in Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

So while the current results highlight the consequences of taking NSAIDs, it should be noted that these drugs also carry important health benefits. Moreover, the results identified a link, and did not establish a cause-effect relationship. "All effective medicines have unwanted effects, and NSAIDs, although easily available, are not without some risks, but this study is no reason to induce anxiety in most users of these drugs," said Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who was not involved with the study.

The bottom line? Patients should talk with their doctors and understand their individual risks and benefits when taking NSAIDs, or any drug for that matter.

Additional source: CNN

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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