When Relieving the Pain Raises the Risk
Many Americans Gamble With Over-the-Counter Painkillers
Jan. 30, 2003 -- Many Americans may be playing a dangerous game
of Russian roulette when it comes to numbing their pain. A new survey shows
nearly half of the 175 million adults who take over-the-counter pain relievers
admit to exceeding the recommended dose, and few are aware of the potential
Although most nonprescription pain relievers are safe for
healthy people when used as directed, some of the most commonly used
medications, known as NSAIDs or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, can cause
potentially deadly side effects. NSAIDs include aspirin and drugs containing
ibuprofen or naproxen, such as Advil and Aleve.
Researchers say 16,500 people die and 103,000 are hospitalized
each year because of NSAID-related problems.
"Too often, consumers just want the pain to go away, so
they take more medicine than the label instructs, and they don't talk to their
doctor about possible risks," says Linda Golodner, president of the
National Consumers League, who sponsored and presented the results of the
survey today at a briefing in New York City. "But just because a medication
is available without a prescription doesn't mean it's risk free."
The survey of more than 4,200 adults, conducted by Harris
Interactive, is one of the largest public opinion polls to date on
over-the-counter pain medications. Researchers say the results show that many
consumers are simply unaware of the potentially serious health risks associated
with NSAIDs, such as stomach bleeding and ulcers.
For example, the survey shows that 50% of respondents who took
an over-the-counter pain medication in the last year were not concerned about
side effects, and nearly half of them (45%) said it is more important to
control pain regardless of risk.
The survey also found that Americans are twice as likely to
take NSAIDs for pain than other acetaminophen-based pain relievers, such as
Tylenol. And those who use NSAIDs are more likely to take more than the
recommended dose or take the drugs while drinking alcohol.
That type of behavior could put some people at risk for serious
complications, according to experts. Exceeding the recommended dosage, taking
the drugs for an extended period of time, taking them along with other pain
medications, and taking NSAIDs in combination with alcohol can all increase the
risk of stomach or intestinal bleeding or other side effects.
Marie Griffin, MD, professor of preventive medicine at
Vanderbilt University, says the risk of complications is relatively low for
young, healthy people who take the drugs as directed. But the risk is
considerably higher for older adults, especially for women who frequently take
the drugs for persistent pain.
Griffin says non-prescription NSAIDs are not intended to treat
chronic pain caused by conditions that affect many older women, such as
arthritis or migraines.