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Opioids Aren’t the Only Dangerous Pain Medications

With so much coverage of today’s opioid epidemic, there is new emphasis on alternative pain treatment. For many people with arthritis and other musculoskeletal pain, this includes the use of medications called non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs). This class of drugs includes aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve) and Celebrex.

But while NSAIDs are overall safer than opioid medications and can be quite effective without the risk of addiction, they are not without their own dangers. For example:

  • Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine recently cautioned that NSAIDs can have serious side effects, such as gastrointestinal bleeding.
  • The American Heart Association warns that NSAIDs can worsen heart failure by causing sodium and fluid retention, as well as interacting with diuretics to make them less effective.
  • The European League Against Rheumatism found that a reported connection between arthritis and heart disease was most likely caused by taking NSAID medications.

There’s no doubt that NSAIDs help many patients. But what should they do to protect their health while taking these drugs? Here are four steps to take:

Keep track of what you’re taking. The Boston University research team found that many patients take more than the recommended dose of ibuprofen or other NSAIDs. Patients may take the drug too often, take more than the recommended dose at one time, or take more than one NSAID medication at a time. Read the label to be sure you understand the recommended dose and how you should take an NSAID drug—how often should you take it, and what dose? With food? Is it safe to drink alcohol? Then keep track with a chart, or use a pillbox.

Talk to your health care provider. It’s important to have your doctor or pharmacist review your medications at least once each year. Did you know that this includes not only prescription drugs, but also over-the-counter medications such as NSAIDs? Ask your doctor if you should be taking NSAIDs, and accurately report the amount that you take. Ask about side effects for which you should be alert. Following your doctor’s recommendation is the most important thing you can do to be safe while taking these drugs.

Learn about alternative pain management strategies. Today, doctors have a wider array of techniques to help patients manage pain, including:

  • Physical therapy
  • Counseling and education
  • Mind-body practices such as yoga and tai chi
  • Lifestyle recommendations, especially exercise

Get help with medication management. If a senior has physical limitations that make it hard to open pill bottles, or memory loss that makes it hard to keep track of doses, seek help from a family member or friend, a professional home caregiver, or staff at their senior living community.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about all the medications you take.


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