The Danger Of Painkillers


Q. Like most people, I take an over-the-counter painkiller for aches and pains. Now, recent headlines say that these can cause a heart attack. Can you clarify this and suggest any safe alternatives?

A. Warnings about these painkillers are not new. In 2005, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that taking common, widely available non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen (both available without prescription), increase the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. They may also raise blood pressure and cause heart failure.

The warning followed the revelation that Vioxx, a prescription NSAID, had caused 140,000 heart attacks in the US over five years. It was withdrawn in 2004. NSAIDs were first launched over a century ago and most of them were registered at a time when there were few requirements for safety documentation. However, since the Vioxx scandal, there has been much more research, which showed that the risk is linked to all NSAIDs.

In 2015, the FD A strengthened its warnings, emphasising that the risk increases even with short-term use and, although greater for people with heart disease, may affect those without it, according to Harvard Health Publications. (Aspirin is an NSAID, but is not included in the warning.)

The latest research was based on data from almost ten million NSAID users in four European countries, which found that, commonly, NSAIDs raise the risk of users being admitted to hospital for heart failure. NSAIDs have also been known to cause stomach problems from digestive upsets and heartburn to bleeding ulcers and, most seriously, stomach cancer.

Because we can buy them so easily and there is no explicit warning about potential risks, it ‘fuels the common misconception that NSAIDs are harmless drugs that are safe for everyone’, says the British Medical Journal, which published this latest study. Many experts are calling for regulatory authorities to restrict their availability.

Taking the occasional NSAID is unlikely to cause problems for most people. However, people with diagnosed heart disease, gastric ulcers or bleeding are generally advised not to take NSAIDs at all. They may also exacerbate other conditions. If in doubt, consult your doctor or a pharmacist.

Many doctors recommend paracetamol as an alternative painkiller, but only one in three users or fewer are likely to benefit. Studies show that it is minimally effective for joint pain and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) does not recommend paracetamol for lower back pain. Plus, taking more than the recommended maximum dose can cause serious liver complications in otherwise healthy people.

One option for some aches and pains is to use a topical NSAID, which minimises the risk of harm as your system absorbs less than it would with oral formulations. Ask your pharmacist for advice.

If you prefer natural products, pharmacist Shabir Daya recommends the following:

Bill, 89, who is registered with impaired vision, tested The Good Life Guide High Vision Reading Light for YOU HQ. ‘This floor-mounted lamp, with a flexible arm, comes in three pieces and is easy to assemble with clear instructions,’ he says. ‘The near-daylight bulb covers a large area. It is excellent for all my needs.’ £49.99,; 01635 588370. Available in beige or black

Every office should have a Back Nodger Self-Massager (£24.99,, according to my colleagues at YOU. ‘This simple invention, based on shiatsu massage, is perfect for those knots under your shoulder blades caused by too much time spent bashing at a computer,’ says one devotee. You position the tip on a knot, rest the curved Nodger on your shoulder and then, with both hands, grip the plastic handle and push, so that you apply (pleasurable) pressure on the tender point.

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  • Radhika

    Hello Shabir,
    I recently underwent surgery to remove a benign spinal cord tumor in my L3 (laminectomy and removal of an intradual tumour attached to the filum terminale). The tumor was removed in its entirely and I made very good recovery with some improvement of symptoms in my back and legs (I was earlier being given medication for suspected Sciatica, a MRI scan eventually revealed the tumor). Till December last year I was on naproxen, codydramol and briefly some diazepam. Now I have been advised to have over the counter painkillers as and when required. I am told it will take a few months for everything to settle down.
    I am not too keen to continue with pain killers and wanted your suggestion/advice on supplements, etc. I read quite a bit on your Superior Joints and also the Magnesium Oil Spray. Would you recommend I use this to get some relief on a long term basis? I would want to reduce my dependency on pain killers. Many thanks. Radhika

  • Victoria Health

    Hi Radhika, I completely understand your reluctance to the use of painkillers and certainly there are some excellent supplements to alleviate pain notably Superior Joints to all types of joint and muscle pain and Magnesium Oil which you can spray twice a day onto the affected area. Superior Joints contains Natural Eggshell Membrane which has been shown to help alleviate arthritic and joint pain rapidly and often within days of its usage. Magnesium when sprayed topically relaxes muscles and nerves and proves to be useful in any regimen to help alleviate pain. Please use these products and do keep me informed. Best wishes Shabir