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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


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.

"[Over-the-counter] NSAIDs are not a treatment for arthritis," says Griffin, who also spoke at the briefing. "NSAIDs don't really treat the arthritis, they really just help the symptoms, like pain and discomfort. But some people are under the impression that they actually retard the progression of arthritis or that by taking it their arthritis will get better, but that's not true."

Many older adults may also already be using a prescription NSAID, such as Vioxx, for chronic pain, and should consult their doctor before taking an over-the-counter NSAID for other aches and pains.

Mel Wilcox, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says one of the most common mistakes people make is simply not knowing what type of pain medications they're taking.

"Many don't know what prescription drugs they're on," says Wilcox, who is also a spokesperson for the American Gastroenterology Association. But he says if it's a drug to treat virtually any type of pain, it could pose a risk if taken with an over-the-counter NSAID.

He says many of his patients who have been warned to stay away from aspirin because of potential stomach problems are often unaware that many "non-aspirin" pain medications are still NSAIDs and could pose a health risk.

But the survey shows that more than half of over-the-counter drug users do not talk with their doctor about their over-the-counter drug use, and even fewer doctors initiate discussions about over-the-counter medications.

Researchers say reading the warning labels that come with over-the-counter pain medications is a good way for consumers to make an informed decision about their health. But only 16% of those surveyed said they read the entire product label before using an over-the-counter pain medication.

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