Are Pain Medications Hurting Your Heart?

Rebecca Pound

We all love the relief that pain medicine can bring to aching joints and muscles. Those facing inflammatory conditions with persistent pain such as rheumatoid arthritis and other types of chronic pain are especially thankful for pills that can ease the pain and help them live a more normal lifestyle. But, a new study has surfaced which confirms some long-held concerns: the medications frequently used both over the counter and by prescription to treat chronic pain and inflammation appears to significantly increase heart disease risk. In fact, patients taking these medications are two-to-four times more likely to experience stroke, heart attack, or cardiovascular death. With numbers that significant, it is vital to pay attention and learn about the type of medication in question.

The Role of NSAIDs

The class of drugs being discussed are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which are commonly used to reduce both chronic and acute pain. Not only do NSAIDs relieve pain and reduce fevers, but they also reduce inflammation by inhibiting cyclooxygenase (COX), a naturally produced substance in the body. The fact that NSAIDs fight inflammation is what sets them apart from acetaminophen type pain killers that fight pain and fever, but do nothing for inflammation.

Older patients have especially found relief through the use of NSAIDs, but they are commonly used in a number of chronic inflammatory conditions in people of all ages. NSAIDs are readily available over the counter in the form of ibuprofen and aspirin. Other types of NSAIDs include diclofenac, naproxen, and the newer forms called celecoxib, lumiracoxib, rofecoxib, and etoricoxib. Of these, a number are only available by prescription. Aspirin does not pose the same risk of heart disease as other NSAIDs, and may actually help heart health.

Dangers of NSAIDs

NSAIDs have long been known to cause gastrointestinal problems, and suspected for some heart-related complications. But the latest compilation of clinical data revealed the alarming truth: the use of NSAIDs nearly doubled the risk of heart failure in a sampling of more than 353,000 patients. While the risks vary some with the type of NSAID, all of them carry significant risk, a troubling factor for doctors who treat many elderly patients with chronic inflammatory pain conditions.

Choosing Alternatives

As alarming as the risks of NSAIDs are, many people are wondering what to do as an alternative. Is the heart disease risk worth the relief from pain? This is a question that has to be answered individually, but there are some natural alternatives that can offer relief without all the risks.

  • Ginger – this humble root is good for more than making gingersnaps. Research actually points to the use of ginger as an anti-inflammatory: showing that it works to inhibit the same cyclooxygenase that NSAIDs do. In a study of patients with arthritis, muscular discomfort, osteoarthritis, and/or rheumatoid arthritis, 100% of patients with muscular discomfort found relief with ginger, while more than 75% of the remaining patients found relief from pain and swelling. Standardized ginger extracts are a great way to try a natural alternative to NSAIDs.
  • Boswellia – another herb with promising anti-inflammatory properties is boswellia. Like ginger, it has been used for centuries in traditional medicine. It has several properties which may inhibit inflammation and provide relief from pain.
  • Tumeric – another spicy ingredient in some foods, turmeric’s principle constituent, curcumin, has been heralded for its anti-inflammatory properties. It is recommended for a list of inflammatory conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, tendonitis, and auto-immune diseases. The extract with curcumin standardized to 95% is available in liquid or capsule form

Keep in mind that natural therapies are not a quick fix. Taking an herb now will not bring instant relief. Patience and consistency pays off in the long run, and these treatments may take four-to-eight weeks before consistent help is noticed. However, since their side effects are almost non-existent, the may be well worth it!

Sources for this article include:

About the Author: Ever since receiving her Master Herbalist certificate in 1999, Rebecca Pound has continued pursuing a knowledge of health, herbs, natural healing, and healthy eating. She has also worked as a health consultant. Rebecca currently works as a volunteer serving underprivileged people in Central America, while nurturing her interest in health through research and writing. To read more articles by Rebecca, please visit
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