Can Painkillers Prevent Parkinson's?

Parkinson's Disease Risk Lower in Users of Over-the-Counter Pain Pills

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on November 05, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 5, 2007 -- Frequent users of over-the-counter pain pills such as ibuprofen have a lower risk of Parkinson's disease, UCLA researchers find.

The finding supports earlier studies suggesting that inflammation-fighting drugs prevent Parkinson's disease -- and maybe other neurodegenerative diseases, too. As their name implies, the painkillers known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) reduce inflammation. These drugs include aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin are common brand names), and naproxen (Aleve is a common brand name).

Beate Ritz, MD, PhD, UCLA professor of epidemiology, environmental health sciences, and neurology, and colleagues enrolled 293 Parkinson's patients within three years of their diagnosis. They also enrolled 286 people without Parkinson's disease matching the patients in age, race, and sex.

They found that regular users of NSAIDS other than aspirin had a 48% lower risk of Parkinson's disease. Those who took non-aspirin NSAIDs for two or more years had a 56% lower risk of Parkinson's disease.

Women who took aspirin also had a lower risk of Parkinson's disease. This wasn't true for men who took aspirin.

"There may be something going on in the process leading to Parkinson's disease that can be suppressed with an anti-inflammatory medication," Ritz tells WebMD.

Inflammation: Key to Parkinson's Disease?

Inflammation is one of the body's most basic and most powerful immune responses. Inflammation that goes on too long, in the wrong place and at the wrong time, results in a number of diseases.

Parkinson's disease is not usually considered an inflammatory disease. During Parkinson's disease, there's a die-off of brain cells that make dopamine, a vital chemical messenger. Ritz suggests that this process may begin with the death of a few dopamine-producing cells.

"There's always a little inflammation when cells die," Ritz says. "These clean-up crews of cells with immune function show up and release substances that attract other cells that give off inflammatory signals. This inflammation impairs the working dopamine-producing cells in some way and maybe even kills them."

If a person were taking NSAIDs at the time this process began, Ritz suggests, the drugs might dampen these overactive immune responses and stop the vicious cycle leading to Parkinson's disease.


It's not a far-fetched theory, says University of Rochester neurologist Karl Kieburtz, MD, chairman of the Parkinson's Study Group, an international consortium of researchers that runs clinical trials of possible treatments for Parkinson's disease.


"Inflammation is thought to be part of the disease process in a number of neurodegenerative disorders," Kieburtz tells WebMD. "That NSAID use might be linked to decreased risk makes sense."

What does not make sense is for anyone to start taking NSAIDs just to prevent possible Parkinson's disease. Steady use of these drugs can have serious side effects, including life-threatening internal bleeding.

Only a clinical trial can show whether people at high risk of Parkinson's disease might benefit from some kind of anti-inflammatory treatment. Until researchers can determine whether the drugs really do prevent neurodegeneration -- and at what dose -- Ritz and Kieburtz agree that nobody should take NSAIDs or aspirin just to prevent Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease.

Ritz and colleagues report their findings in the Nov. 6 issue of Neurology.

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SOURCES: Wahner, A.D. Neurology, Nov. 6, 2007; vol 69: pp 1836-1842. Beate Ritz, MD, PhD, vice chair, department of epidemiology; and professor of epidemiology, environmental health sciences, and neurology, University of California, Los Angeles. Karl Kieburtz, MD, professor of neurology and community and preventive medicine, University of Rochester, N.Y.

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