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Pain Management Health Center

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When Relieving the Pain Raises the Risk

Many Americans Gamble With Over-the-Counter Painkillers

WebMD Health News

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 risks.

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.

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