We’ve all seen the commercials. A middle aged man is playing [inset youthful sport here] and at then you see him gripping his [knee, wrist, shoulder, back] in pain and discomfort. There’s a voiceover of how much it sucks getting old. Then – a promised solution – 2 of this or that tablet, a few times a day. The commercial ends with the middle-aged man playing that same sport with grace and skill, laughing with his friends, and just loving life. The message in these commercials are clear. Got pain? Take an ibuprofen. Got pain every day? Buy in bulk.
Now, I’m not one of those anti-drugs and anti-surgery chiropractors by any means, but I have a strong hunch that those daily aches and pains aren’t caused by an ibuprofen deficiency. Nevermind that these pills aren’t actually fixing or reversing whatever’s causing the pain. What’s more concerning to me are the hidden dangers of these pills.
Ibuprofen, Aspirin, and Naproxen kill about 16,500 people a year.
Here are some fun facts…
- Every year, 100,000 people end up in the hospital because of NSAIDs and about 16,500 of them die from an NSAID toxicity.
- In 2007, 80,000 phone calls a day were made to poison control centers because of NSAIDs.
- Chronic NSAID use is the 15th leading cause of death in the USA.
NSAIDs are dangerous because chronic use can cause…
- Slow-bleeding stomach ulcers
- Liver and kidney disease
- Autoimmune diseases
- Degenerative Joint Disease (ironic when you consider most people take them for arthritis)
- Decreased immune response to bacteria and viruses
Symptoms of NSAID toxicity include…
- Stomach Ulcers
- Increased Blood Pressure
- Tinnitus (ringing in your ears)
- Erectile Dysfunction
So What is an NSAID and how much is too much?
NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) are a class of drugs, both prescription and over the counter, that decreases inflammation which then decreases pain. Not all OTC painkillers are NSAIDs. Acetaminophen, for example, is just a painkiller and does not suppress inflammation. Some studies have shown that toxicity can begin after one week of use at more than a half-gram a day. Keep in mind that the extra-strength pills are usually a half-gram EACH. Two pills three times a day is 3 grams – definitely not good for the ol’ liver.
How does an NSAID work?
This requires some talk about inflammation, which is best presented in a different blog. But I’ll boil it down here. In the body, inflammation is a major defense system against bugs and viruses. But it’s also the result of damage and is a part of the natural healing process. The mechanisms that cause and control inflammation are HUGE but there are two players worth knowing: COX-1 and COX-2. COX-1 is responsible for some housekeeping, protection, and regulation of various organs and processes. It’s a good guy to have around. COX-2 is responsible for the pain and swelling associated with inflammation. An NSAID works by stopping BOTH of them from working.
So when an NSAID prevents pain, it’s also preventing the protection and regulation of different areas in your body. How does this play out? In your stomach, COX-1 is responsible for making the lining that protects your cells. Poor stomach lining can lead to a bleeding ulcer which can remain completely painless and unnoticeable until one day you hemorrhage. Body-wide, the decreased inflammatory process leads to decreased immunity making your more susceptible to infections and sickness.
When is it okay to take an NSAID?
Like most things, everything is fine in moderation. For the occasional ache and pain due to a trip to the dentist or a rough day at work, an NSAID is great. But when you’re taking several handfuls for more than a week at a time, you’d be best served addressing the actual cause of the problem instead of just masking the pain that is caused by it.