Are painkillers bad for your heart?

Lesley Dobson / 07 October 2016

How safe are your painkillers for your heart? We take a look at recent research.



If you take painkillers for joint pain, headaches, back-ache, arthritis, or any other ailment, you’ll know how much you come to rely on them to ease your discomfort.

Over-the-counter painkillers guide

However, a recent study has found that in some cases, taking painkillers could be bad for your health. The study, carried out in Italy, found that some painkillers – in this case non-selective non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – can increase your risk of heart problems.

The study, published in The BMJ (British Medical Journal) found that taking this particular type of painkiller can increase your risk of developing heart failure. But just how serious is this threat?

The painkillers studied in the research were non-selective non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). The drugs studied included ibuprofen, which is easily available over the counter, as well as on prescription. The study also included new generation anti-inflammatory drugs that are known as COX 2 inhibitors.

NSAIDs can reduce pain and inflammation. Many of us depend on them to ease headaches and, particularly, to help with joint pain and inflammation.

It’s important to be aware of the health risk (and not to take more than the prescribed or advised dose of any medication). It’s also important to remember that the risk that comes with taking NSAIDs, depends on your health, which NSAIDs you take, the dosage you take, and how often you take them.

Previous studies have found that there is a link between taking NSAIDs and Cox inhibitors, and a higher chance of developing heart failure.

Read our guide to cardiovascular disease terminology

The new study went a step further. It found that taking very high doses of certain NSAIDs including some COX 2 inhibitors, on a daily basis, could double the risk of being admitted to hospital with heart failure.

But it is vital to remember that this does not apply to everyone. “It has been known for some years now that such drugs need to be used with caution in patients with, or at high risk of, heart disease. This mostly applies to those who take them on a daily basis, rather than only occasionally,” explains Professor Peter Weissberg, Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation.

If you’re worrying about taking the occasional ibuprofen, bear in mind that the study found that this over-the-counter drug only raised your risk of having heart problems by 18%.

Facts about the study

The team of researchers was led by Giovanni Corrao, at the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy. They based their findings on almost 10 million people from the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and the UK. All were taking NSAIDs that had been prescribed for them

  • The study looked at 27 individual NSAIDs, and this included four selective COX inhibitors.
  • The team found 92,163 admissions to hospital for heart failure among the group of nearly 10 million.
  • Risk of admission for heart failure increased with use of these seven commonly used NSAIDs. They are: diclofenac, ibuprofen, indomethac, keterolac, naproxen, nimesulide and proxicam, and two COX inhibitors, etoricoxib and rofecoxib.

If you are worried about the amount of NSAIDs you’re taking, and how often you take them, talk to your GP, heart, arthritis or other specialist (if you have one), or pharmacist.

Read more on this topic

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