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Are OTC Painkillers Safe?

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When your muscles ache and your feet are sore, an OTC pain pill seems like a logical remedy. But popping the meds like candy can have bitter consequences for your workout and your body.

OTC Pain Med Misuse

Like most women who work out regularly, Jennifer Null is no stranger to feeling sore. And like many of the walking wounded, she relies on over-the-counter meds for relief. "When I'm hurting, I'll just pop a couple of ibuprofens," says Jennifer, 28, a marketing coordinator in Baltimore. She does this at least three or four times a week -- a habit that started in college. Jennifer isn't at all worried about the safety of the pills. "They're harmless," she says.

This attitude, shared by many exercisers, could put your health at risk. While over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin, for example), naproxen (Aleve and others), and acetaminophen (Tylenol and others) have become medicine cabinet fixtures -- used, according to a survey from the National Consumers League (NCL), by 175 million Americans yearly -- the meds are hardly innocuous. When taken incorrectly, as Jennifer and other active women are doing, the little pills can cause real damage.

Modern-day miracle workers for easing the discomfort of strained muscles, stiff joints, swelling, and soreness, OTC painkillers have safely helped countless women stick with their exercise routine instead of seeking refuge on the living room couch. The affordability and accuracy with which these drugs can now address specific pains has changed the way we recover from tough workouts, making it easier than ever to get back on the proverbial horse. And it's tempting to think that if a little pain relief works this well, a lot of pain relief must work even better. Not true.

"Overuse of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen, can cause bleeding ulcers, raise blood pressure, damage the esophagus, and lead to problems with the kidneys," says Jan Engle, PharmD, a pharmacist at the University of Illinois College of Pharmacy in Chicago and a past president of the American Pharmacists Association. The NCL reports that 3,200 to 16,500 people die each year from NSAID-related GI bleeding and up to another 107,000 are hospitalized for NSAID-related complications. Although those who suffer from NSAID damage are typically older or have conditions such as kidney problems or ulcers that make them more vulnerable, "young, healthy women who continually use painkillers can also harm themselves," Dr. Engle says.

Acetaminophen can be equally lethal. In fact, overuse of this drug is one of the leading causes of liver failure in the United States, with overdoses resulting in more than 56,000 injuries, 26,000 hospitalizations, and an estimated 458 deaths a year, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "More than two-thirds of the cases are women, though we don't know if women are more susceptible or if it's just that they take more medication," says William M. Lee, MD, a liver specialist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and a principal investigator for its Acute Liver Failure Study Group.

And yet, ask for a show of hands of people who've popped three pills instead of two for a bad headache or doubled up on the recommended amount after pulling a muscle at the gym and the pervasiveness of overuse becomes clear. Many people are convinced OTC pain relievers are helpful -- and harmless -- in any quantity. It's so common for consumers to take too much that last year, advisers to the FDA called for significant changes -- including stronger warnings on labels, which have since appeared. They also suggested lower maximum daily dosages for OTC acetaminophen products, but if and how the FDA will proceed is still unknown.

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amm3241 wrote:

maryrodriguez, I suggest Melatonin to help you sleep. I've always had issues falling and staying asleep. I take melatonin an hour before bed and it helps a lot and it's all natural. Find it in the vitamin section anywhere.

5/20/2010 07:39:25 PM Report Abuse
jparker73 wrote:

I have to agree with Kaylen Miller - what are recommended dosages and what are the alternatives. I have been taking ibuprofen/naproxen/acetaminophen - switching off every couple weeks between them, for years. The report on damage to the esophagus was particularly alarming as my brother died from esophageal cancer and although I have changed my diet to eliminate anything causing acid reflux, I have a little nagging pain when I swallow. Now I am worried.

5/20/2010 12:22:50 PM Report Abuse
slodee wrote:

Regarding Tylenol PM.. 5 yrs ago I was my Alz. stricken Fathers caregiver. At 10 PM, before I started the night time wrestling match I would take 2 Tylenol PMs, I was so wound up I couldnt sleep afterwards, This went on for a year. I was having PAINS for days, went for a sono and instead of my gallbldder as the Docs suspected,, My liver was Swollen and pushing on the gallbladder. It subsided after 2 weeks and i was advised back then about tylenol/liver connection and Ive never taken 1 again.

5/20/2010 08:23:17 AM Report Abuse
ashackelford5 wrote:

It's true,I have an ulcer from taking too many ibuprofen and Goody powders for headaches. Now, I can't take anything that has aspirin/ibuprofen/naproxen in it or else I am back at the ER. Please take heed of their warning!! It can happen pretty quickly if you take too much!

5/19/2010 01:52:28 PM Report Abuse
janettelabella wrote:

I don't usually take tablets, but pulled a muscle last week and have taken loads since then. My brother in law suggested I take four times the amount - now I'm going to change all that! Good timing for this article! thanks!

5/19/2010 01:09:39 PM Report Abuse

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