Let me start by saying, that despite spending the last 20-something years in or around the pharmaceutical industry, I don’t like taking pills. That said, I’m not particularly partial to pain either. So when my knees or back hurts or I’m doubled over with dysmenorrhea, like many other people, I’ll reach for the ibuprofen.
But that may be about to change. Results from a new, large international study of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), showed that high doses of them increase the risk of a major vascular event such as heart attack, stroke or death from cardiovascular disease by around a third.
In other words, for every 1,000 people with an average risk of heart disease who take high-dose ibuprofen for a year, about three extra would have an avoidable heart attack, of which one would be fatal, the researchers said.
This puts the heart risks of generic NSAIDs on a par with Vioxx – the painkiller that U.S. drugmaker Merck famously pulled from sale in 2004 because of links to heart risks.
The study team from Oxford University in the UK, gathered data, including on admissions to hospital, for cardiovascular or gastrointestinal disease, from all randomized trials that have previously tested NSAIDs.
This allowed them to pool results from 639 trials involving more than 300,000 people and re-analyze the data to establish the risks of NSAIDs in certain types of patients.
In contrast to the findings on ibuprofen and diclofenac, the study found that high doses of naproxen, another NSAID, did not appear to increase the risk of heart attacks. The researchers said this may be because naproxen also has protective effects that balance out any extra heart risks.
Researcher, Colin Baigent stressed that the risks are mainly relevant to people who suffer chronic pain, such as patients with arthritis who need to take high doses of for long periods. “A short course of lower dose tablets purchased without a prescription, for example, for a muscle sprain, is not likely to be hazardous,” he said.
He also warns patients not to make hasty decisions or change their treatment without consulting a doctor.
“For many arthritis patients, NSAIDs reduce joint pain and swelling effectively and help them to enjoy a reasonable quality of life,” he said. “We really must be careful about the way we present the risks of these drugs. They do have risks, but they also have benefits, and patients should be presented with all those bits of information and allowed to make choices for themselves.”
Donald Singer, a professor of clinical pharmacology and therapeutics at Warwick University, who was not involved in the study, said its findings “underscore a key point for patients and prescribers: powerful drugs may have serious harmful effects.”
In the meantime, I for one, will be revising my pain versus pill-popping habit, or switching to naproxen.