Are OTC Painkillers Safe?
What Exercisers Should Know About OTC Painkillers
Stronger warnings may not be enough. OTC meds have "become part of the workout ritual," says Stuart Warden, PhD, director of physical therapy research at Indiana University in Indianapolis. Many women training for a sports event will pop a pre-workout pill as a preventive measure. Megan Lewis, 25, is preparing for her second marathon. On days that the college administrator in San Francisco logs 15 miles or more, she takes two 200-milligram tablets of ibuprofen before she hits the road. She believes they protect her from aches and inflammation, although prevention is not actually mentioned on the label. "There's no scientific evidence of prophylactic benefits," Warden says.
Like Jennifer Null, Megan has never talked with a doctor about taking these pills. "People assume that because the meds are over-the-counter, they have to be safe," says Mel Wilcox, MD, a gastroenterologist at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. That nonchalant attitude shows: Only about one person in five reads the directions on an OTC pain reliever label the first time she takes the medicine, and just 30 percent check the dosing instructions, according to a National Consumers League survey. And about one-quarter of people take more than the recommended dosage, a Roper Starch Worldwide survey found.
The risks of such behavior are significant. For starters, using NSAIDs before an activity can mask pain, causing you to unknowingly worsen an injury. Plus, NSAIDs such as ibuprofen block the action of enzymes that repair and strengthen tissue, so extended use can actually delay the healing of injuries like muscle and tendon tears. "Prolonged use of NSAIDs by athletes is simply not safe or effective," Warden says.
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