Unfortunately, over-the-counter pain medications are not harmless. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular ones, and the risks that may be associated with their long-term use.
The Effects of Headache Medications
Paracetamol over time can cause kidney damage, even failure. Ibuprofen can cause liver dysfunction and stomach ulcers. According to the Journal of Rheumatology (1991), NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti_Inflammatory Drugs) cause over 103,000 hospitalisations annually in the USA due to serious gastrointestinal complications.(1)
Those using aspirin for daily aches, pains and headaches could do well to consider alternative care. Regular use of aspirin puts you in a higher risk group for developing pancreatic cancer. Thirty-one thousand Americans a year are diagnosed with it and almost every victim dies within 3 years under medical care. A study of 88,000 nurses found that those who took two or more aspirins a week for 20 or more years had a fifty-eight percent higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Those taking 14 tablets or more per week had an 86% greater risk than non-users.(2)
The Sunday Telegraph in November 2009 featured an article by Elissa Doherty titled “Are We Hooked On Painkillers?”(3) In the article, it was noted that “They’re convenient, accessible and effective, but there is a dark side to our use of analgesics” Some of the points made in the article include:
“Even anti-inflammatory tablets that were once prescription-only can now be found among the toothbrushes at your local store.”
Pain-killers may be masking a more serious problem: “That recurring headache could, for example, stem from a neck injury that needs attention.”
The article also reveals how expert opinions tend to change over time. It reported “… while one aspirin study found it should be taken by most healthy men over 48 and women over 57, the latest research suggests otherwise. Professor Gerry Fowkes, from the University of Edinburgh, presented the findings at the European Society of Cardiology congress in Spain recently. ‘Our research suggests that aspirin should not be prescribed to the general population, although it does have benefits for people with established heart disease or other conditions.’ says Professor Fowkes.”
Doherty then goes on to report on the opinion of an Australian neurologist who had studied the area of underuse as well as the overuse of medications: “Dr. Stark says that worldwide, about four per cent of people have headaches 15 days or more per month, and about a quarter to a half of these are overusing over-the-counter medications to treat their ailments.”
It may be that analgesics are not as without risk as many of us seem to believe!
Jason Barritt, B.Sc. (Hons), D.C.
Our next Headache-Myth-Busting article looks at Headache Myth #3: “Stress Causes Headaches”. Stay tuned…
1 Fries James F., “NSAID Gastropathy: The Second Most Deadly Rheumatic Disease? Epidemiology and Risk Appraisal”, Journal of Rheumatology, 1991, (Supplement 28), Vol. 18, pp. 6-10
2 Schernhammer, ES, Kang, JH, Chan, AT et al., “A Prospective Study of Aspirin Use and the Risk of Pancreatic Cancer in Women.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2004;961:22-28.
3 Doherty, Elissa. “Are We Hooked On Painkillers?” The Sunday Telegraph Nov. 1, 2009