Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Osteoarthritis Health Center

Font Size

Are Anti-Inflammatory Pain Relievers Safe for You?

Here's help weighing the benefits and risks of NSAIDs, from aspirin to Celebrex
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

At age 62, April Dawson lives every day with chronic pain from wrist arthritis.

"There are a lot of everyday things I just can't do now," she says. "I can't open packages or jars or even lift a half-gallon of milk. Some days I can barely turn the ignition in my car."

Recommended Related to Osteoarthritis

Walking to Ease Knee Pain

It's a catch-22 when you have knee pain from osteoarthritis. It hurts, so you don't want to move. But if you exercise, it can eventually make your knees feel better. "I've gone a period of time when I haven’t moved a joint much and, when I first start, it's a little bit sore," says Denver physical therapist Eric Robertson, who has osteoarthritis. Robertson knows what it's like to be achy when he first starts moving. Your knee may hurt and ache, but it shouldn't keep you from doing your usual activities,...

Read the Walking to Ease Knee Pain article > >

But despite the pain and inconvenience, she takes no medication to relieve her suffering.

Her doctor tried her on some prescription anti-inflammatory drugs, "But I was always wary of using medicines," she says. "And when the news came out showing the risk of heart attacks and strokes, I decided to stay away from drugs altogether."

Dawson is in a common bind, one shared by many Americans. She suffers from severe chronic pain but fears the side effects of common painkillers called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs.)

Two anti-inflammatory drugs - Bextra and Vioxx - have been taken off the market because of heart risks and other side effects. A similar but slightly different drug, Celebrex, is available by prescription, with warnings about potential risk.

But even long-term use of over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen and naproxen (Advil, Aleve, and Motrin) may carry some of the same risks.

What should you do if you, like April Dawson, suffer significant pain from arthritis? First, it's important to understand the tradeoffs you make with all medicine. Medications can cause side effects; they also can relieve suffering. It's important to talk with your doctor about the potential benefits versus risk in your particular case. Second, it's critical to be monitored by your doctor if you are taking any medicine regularly for longer than a couple of weeks. Careful monitoring can catch side effects early.

"There's no simple answer," says cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, MD, a spokesperson for the American Heart Association and Chief of Women's Cardiac Care at Lennox Hill Hospital, New York City. The degree of risk from NSAIDs varies greatly from person to person, she says, and depends on things like your medical condition and the medicines you take.

"Pain is a serious problem and it needs to be treated," says Goldberg. "But you have to do it in the safest way possible."

Understanding NSAIDs

There is no question that the risks of NSAIDs can be serious, even life-threatening.

According to the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA), each year the side effects of NSAIDs hospitalize over 100,000 people and kill 16,500 in the U.S., mostly due to bleeding stomach ulcers.

But it's important to put those numbers in context. The AGA also says that every day, more than 30 million Americans use NSAIDs for pain from headaches, arthritis, and other conditions. And while some experts emphasize the dangers, others stress that living with chronic pain is terrible in itself.

Today on WebMD

elderly hands
Even with arthritis pain.
woman exercising
Here are 7 easy tips.
 
acupuncture needles in woman's back
How it helps arthritis, migraines, and dental pain.
chronic pain
Get personalized tips to reduce discomfort.
 
Keep Joints Healthy
SLIDESHOW
Chronic Pain Healthcheck
HEALTH CHECK
 
close up of man with gut
Article
man knee support
Article
 
woman with cold compress
QUIZ
Man doing tai chi
Article
 
hand gripping green rubber ball
Slideshow
person walking with assistance
Slideshow