Whether it’s relief from a splitting headache or taking the dull ache out of bumps and bruises, over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications are a go-to for millions of people: About eight in ten Americans regularly turn to them for relief, according to health and medicine website STAT. However, while they may make you feel better in the moment, research has shown that the prescription-free pills can have serious health consequences in some cases. Now, a new study has found that one type of OTC pain medication could be making the problem it aims to solve even worse. Read on to see which common drugs could be prolonging your suffering.
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Pain can stem from anything from catching the flu to suffering an injury. But when it comes to common ailments, lower back pain can be a nagging issue that can make everyday activity uncomfortable. Unfortunately, it’s also common: About 577 million people—or 7.5 percent of the global population—suffer from the condition, with 85 to 95 percent reporting to their doctors that they don’t know the reason for it, according to the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP).
However, research has shown that not all OTC pain medications are cut out to treat the nagging ailment. According to a study published in The Medical Journal of Australia in April 2021, acetaminophen—also known as paracetamol or by the brand name Tylenol—was found to be “not effective for relieving acute low back pain.” Instead, other research has found that the popular pain reliever is better suited to treat “headaches, dental pain, and pain after surgery,” according to Harvard Men’s Health Watch.
For this reason, experts have previously recommended taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen to treat both back pain and inflammation. “Inflammation is a contributing factor in most back and neck pain conditions, so reducing inflammation often helps alleviate the pain,” says Kathee de Falla, PharmD (via Spine Health). “They can be used to address short-term back, neck, and muscle pain,” she adds.
But now, new research could potentially change the way doctors use medication to manage lower back pain and other aches. According to a study published on May 11 in the journal Science Translational Medicine, using steroids and NSAIDs such as ibuprofen for relief could actually be making things worse by setting the stage for chronic pain, The New York Times reports.
“For many decades, it’s been standard medical practice to treat pain with anti-inflammatory drugs. But we found that this short-term fix could lead to longer-term problems,” says Jeffrey Mogil, PhD, one of the study’s lead authors and a professor in the Department of Psychology at McGill University in Montreal, said in a press release.
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The researchers in the latest study tested their results by looking at how pain was caused in human subjects. Blood samples were taken from 98 people soon after they first reported suffering back pain and then again three months later. Results found that patients who reported their pain subsiding showed signs of inflammation when their pain first developed before eventually fading over time. However, the team did not record the same inflammatory response in those who still reported pain at the end of the three months, per The Times.
According to researchers, the most significant changes seemed to occur in one type of cell known as neutrophils during the examination period. “Neutrophils dominate the early stages of inflammation and set the stage for repair of tissue damage. Inflammation occurs for a reason, and it looks like it’s dangerous to interfere with it,” Mogil explained in the press release.
To further explore their theory, the researchers also used information from the U.K. Biobank. Specifically, the group considered 2,163 patients diagnosed with back pain and 461 who developed chronic pain. Analysis showed that patients who took NSAIDs to manage their aches were almost twice as likely to develop chronic back pain two to ten years later than those who used other medicines or took none, according to The Times.
The team concluded that their findings supported reconsidering how doctors approach short and long-term pain treatment. “We discovered that pain resolution is actually an active biological process,” Luda Diatchenko, MD, PhD, a professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Dentistry and McGill, said in a statement. “These findings should be followed up by clinical trials directly comparing anti-inflammatory drugs to other pain killers that relieve aches and pains but don’t disrupt inflammation.”
Other medical experts agreed that the observational study should be followed up with clinical research. “It’s intriguing but requires further study,” Steven J. Atlas, MD, director of primary care practice-based research and quality improvement at Massachusetts General Hospital, told The Times.
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