Ask an Expert: Are Pain Relievers Bad for You?

By Bill Moore Smith, M.D., UT Erlanger Institute for Sports and Health
Posted on May 6, 2015

Are pain relievers actually bad for you? There are a lot of conflicting claims about them in the media.

Unfortunately, there’s no simple “yes” or “no” answer. Pain isn’t something that should be taken lightly, yet it must be treated as safely as possible. The key is to learn about your medications, and discuss them with your doctor.

First, you need to know how pain relievers work.

The most common painkillers are called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). There is no denying that these medications carry risks that can be serious, even life-threatening. Living with chronic pain, however, can be worse. For most people, relief is worth the risk of medicine.

The most common NSAIDs are:

  • Aspirin (e.g. brand names Bayer, Ecotrin, Joseph)
  • Ibuprofen (e.g. brand names Advil, Motrin, Nuprin)
  • Ketoprofen (e.g. brand names Actron, Ordus KT )
  • Naproxen (e.g. brand names Aleve, Naprosyn)
  • C-2 Inhibitors (e.g. brand name Celebrex)

Despite slight differences, all of these medications work essentially the same way. Their primary goal is to block chemicals that heighten the sense of pain. Unlike other painkiller options, NSAIDs also relieve pain by reducing swelling — a key cause of pain.

One of the problems with NSAIDs is that they are consumed orally. This means the drug will be distributed throughout the entire body, even if you’re only feeling pain in your elbow. Sometimes topical pain relievers are more useful. These include creams or bandages that can be applied directly to the source of pain. The drug is then absorbed directly to the spot of the pain.

Understanding the risks. 

For the average adult, taking an occasional over-the-counter painkiller to snuff a headache is quite safe.  You only start to dip your toes into the risk pool when you continuously take medication.

The most common side effect of NSAIDs is damage to the gastrointestinal tract – your esophagus, stomach and small intestine. This risk pool often comes in the shape of bleeding ulcers, which usually heal once the drug is stopped.

In order to decrease the risk of bleeding ulcers, C-2 inhibitors were created. While these help lower the risk for bleeding ulcers, they introduce other risks. Two C-2 inhibitors (Bextra and Vioxx) were taken off the market for their connection with heart attacks and strokes. Despite similar risks, Celebrex – another C-2 inhibitor — is still on the market (with plenty of FDA warning labels).

Other risks for all NSAIDs are allergic reactions, high blood pressure and kidney damage.

Enjoying the benefits.

Now, let’s talk about the good that comes from pain relievers like NSAIDs.

Doctors will tell you treating pain is a vital part of any recovery process, so they often provide pain medication as a first step. Not only does pain relief allow people to get up, exercise, or get through rehabilitation, it also helps them mentally. Less pain means happier patients, and positive thinking among patients has been connected with quicker recovery.

So what should you do?

At the end of the day, it really does all come down to YOU.

Your best bet is to sort through all the pros and cons of pain relievers. Talk to your doctor and make informed decisions. If you are reluctant to take medication for pain, there are other options such as physical therapy, acupuncture, and natural alternatives.  Be sure to see your doctor to come up with the best solution for you.

To contact us or to make an appointment with a specialist, call 423-778-2564.

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