WATCH THAT PILL

I have always tried to avoid painkillers except on the rare occasions when I felt I had to take them. When I did however, my whole body system, particularly my stomach, would go haywire. So I’m not surprised to read that Ibuprofen and other painkillers may trigger a heart condition which affects almost a million Britons, a major study has shown. Patients who regularly take the pills are up to 20 per cent more likely to develop heart failure.

Long-term use of the medication causes chemical reactions in the body which place extra strain on the heart, research suggests. This can lead to heart failure in patients who have a history of previous heart attacks or high blood pressure. An estimated 900,000 adults in Britain have heart failure that occurs when the muscle becomes too weak to pump blood around the body. It causes extreme tiredness, breathlessness and swelling of the legs and is a long-term condition that can’t be cured.

The study, published in the journal BMJOPEN, involved 10 million patients from the UK, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany. Those prescribed painkillers known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – which includes Ibuprofen – were 20 per cent more likely on average to be admitted to hospitals with heart failure. The findings showed Ibuprofen increased the risk of heart failure by 18 per cent, if taken regularly. Diclofenac, used for arthritis, raised the likelihood by 19 per cent and Ketorolac, a less common drug, increased it by 83 per cent. For those who took NSAIDs daily for a year or more, the risk almost doubled compared to if they were not taking them at all.

Lead author Dr Giovanni Corrao, from the University of Milan, said these types of painkillers were being ‘inappropriately over used’. The pills are commonly taken by the elderly for long-term conditions such as arthritis and other muscular pains, but these are the patients also at the highest risk of heart failure and may have previously suffered heart attacks.

Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘Since heart and joint problems often co-exist particularly in the elderly, this study serves as a reminder to doctors how they prescribe NSAIDs. And to patients, that they should only take the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible time. They should discuss their treatment with their GP if they have any concerns. It has been known for some years now that such drugs need to be used with caution on patients with, or at high risk, of heart disease. This applies mostly to those who take them on a daily basis rather than occasionally.’

Dr Tim Chico, an expert in cardiovascular medicine at the University of Sheffield also said the risk was also low for patients who only took NSAIDs occasionally and had no previous risk of heart attack. In July, the American Heart Association urged doctors to check patients were not taking Ibuprofen or similar painkillers for long periods of time over concerns of their links to heart failure. The organization is one of the largest and most influential in the world and their recommendations have been closely heeded by doctors in the UK.

Helen Williams, consultant pharmacist for cardiovascular diseases at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society said the most commonly used drugs posed the lowest risks. She said: ‘the NHS has moved away from more potent NSAIDs because of the established increased risk of heart attacks and strokes with these medicines.’

On my part, I avoid painkillers like the plague. Their side effects are often worse than the pain they are trying to relieve. If you can bear the discomfort of pain for a short time then I believe you are better off in the long-term.

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