Aug. 15, 2005 -- The pills in your medicine cabinet may be raising your blood pressure.
Women who take a lot of acetaminophen (Tylenol) have nearly twice the risk of high blood pressure as those who don't use the drug. Those who take a lot of ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) up their risk by as much as 78%.
The findings come from two studies that collected detailed information on more than 5,000 registered nurses aged 34 to 77. Harvard researcher John P. Forman, MD, says the findings mean women should think twice about taking common pain relievers.
"We are by no means suggesting that women with chronic pain conditions not receive treatment for their pain," Forman tells WebMD. "These medications, by virtue of their availability over the counter, are viewed as being safe or without risk. By pointing out risks associated with these drugs, [we hope] more informed choices can be made by women and their doctors."
The Headache Factor
In earlier studies, Forman's team found a link between the use of common painkillers and high blood pressure. However, it wasn't clear whether one major reason for taking the drugs -- headache -- was itself behind the link to high blood pressure.
The current study finds that whether or not a woman suffered from headaches, the drugs still increased her risk of high blood pressure.
The study, which appears in the September issue of Hypertension, lumped ibuprofen, naproxen, and similar drugs into a single category: NSAIDs. About 80% of the women using NSAIDs were taking ibuprofen. Taking more than 400 milligrams of NSAIDs per day upped the risk of high blood pressure by 78% in older women and by 60% in younger women.
Daily use of more than 500 milligrams of acetaminophen raised the risk of high blood pressure by 93% in older women and by 99% in younger women.
Using 'Greater Caution'
"High blood pressure affects about one in three adults in the U.S.," Forman says. "As the two most frequently used drugs in this country, acetaminophen and NSAIDs may substantially contribute to the disease burden of high blood pressure. On an individual level ... these agents should be used with greater caution."
What does "greater caution" mean? Laurence S. Sperling, MD, director of the risk reduction program at Emory Heart Center in Atlanta, says it means that people can't just pop pills without thinking about the consequences.
"Medicines we can buy over the counter and use without a doctor's advice may not be as safe as we think," Sperling tells WebMD. "People think Tylenol, especially, is pretty innocuous. We have to realize that any substance has risks if we use it on a regular basis."
So what's a person with pain supposed to do?
"What I tell people is we have to look at what's right for you," Sperling says. "If we can find something else that is safer, great. If not, we have to accept a higher risk because quality of life is part of the equation. The risk here is not phenomenal. It is not as if taking these drugs guarantees you will have a heart attack or stroke."