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Dangers of Common Painkillers

There's mounting evidence that regular use is risky for older people

En español | Most of us don't think twice about taking a nonprescription pain reliever to ease a headache or soreness that might follow a game of tennis, but there is growing evidence that commonly used painkillers such as Advil can trigger heart attacks or strokes in some people.

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These nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), a diverse group that also includes Motrin and prescription varieties like Celebrex and Voltaren, have been used for decades.

Now there is strong evidence that many of them raise risks of heart problems, says Elliott Antman, M.D., a cardiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School.

Several new studies underscore a growing awareness of the problem.

In Denmark, a team led by Anne-Marie Schjerning Olsen, M.D., a research cardiologist at Copenhagen University Hospital, reviewed medical records for nearly 84,000 heart attack survivors, 42 percent of whom reported using NSAIDs.

According to a paper published last May in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, the team found more cases of second heart attacks and strokes among the NSAID users — except for those taking naproxen (Aleve) after as little as a week. Researchers reported last year that NSAIDs raised the general risk for heart attacks even in apparently healthy people. The painkillers have also been linked with stomach bleeding and kidney failure.

Although many doctors endorse the short-term use of the common painkillers when there are no other pain-relief alternatives, the study authors decided there is no safe amount of time to take NSAIDs, according to Olsen.

In July, American and other Danish researchers reported in the British Medical Journal that new NSAID users faced an increased risk of a dangerous heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation. The risk was higher among older patients, those using celecoxib (Celebrex) and people with chronic kidney problems.

At the University of Florida College of Medicine, doctors who studied the records of older patients enrolled in a trial of competing blood pressure drugs found that longtime regular NSAID users faced a nearly 50 percent higher chance of death, heart attack or stroke.

Next: What about acetaminophen (Tylenol)? >>

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