We’re all guilty of reaching for handy painkillers at the first sight of an ache, pain or cold – sometimes even before symptoms become painful – but we don’t often spare a thought for the effect this could have on our health later on.
New research has shed a light on the long-term risks for the millions of users of two common painkillers, ibuprofen and diclofenac.
While these non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are among the most commonly used, the study’s data showed that their high dose long-term use could double the risk of heart failure and quadruple the risk of serious upper gastrointestinal complications such as ulcers.
Published, in the journal Lancet, the research findings showed that the drugs posed an even greater risk for smokers and the overweight.
The study’s authors, from the University of Oxford, investigated close to 400,000 patient records from more than 600 clinical trials to accurately assess the impact of NSAIDs. They were particularly concerned with the impact of high-dose prescriptions, rather than over-the-counter pain relief.
The researchers showed that for every 1,000 people using the common painkillers there would be: three additional heart attacks, four more cases of heart failure, one death and multiple cases of stomach bleeding every year as a result of taking the common painkillers.
The study concluded that some patients – like suffers of arthritis who take the drugs in order to go about their daily lives – would deem the risk acceptable, but that this was a choice they needed to make.
“If you’re a patient and you go and sit in front of your doctor and discuss it, you are the one who should be making the judgement about whether [the risk] is worth it to allow you, potentially, to go about your daily life,” said lead researcher Professor Colin Baigent.
He added that those who take short courses of the drugs should have no cause for concern except if they already are at risk of heart problems, high blood pressure or cholesterol – as they would be at an even great risk from complications as a result of the drugs.
In 2004, a related drug called rofecoxib, known as Vioxx, was taken off the market by its manufacturer after similar concerns were raised.
A spokesperson for the British Pharmacological Society said that the findings underscored a key point for both patients and prescribers – that powerful drugs like painkillers pose serious harmful effects.
He added that the onus was on prescribers to take these risks into consideration and help ensure that patients are kept up to date so that they can make informed choices about their medications.