As we are struggling to come to grips with the opioid crisis in dealing with chronic pain, a new study shows that Americans are also highly likely to use more than the recommended dosage of over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers such as ibuprofen. Combined with the worrying statistics about acetaminophen-related health harms, this shows that many of the most dangerous medications in America may be available without a prescription. It may be time to rethink our habit of popping a pill (or two or three) whenever we have a headache.
Although it’s common to think of ibuprofen as a safe drug, it’s actually potentially quite dangerous. Ibuprofen and other members of its group of medications (known as NSAIDS, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are associated with several major complications, including serious stomach bleeding and heart problems.
These dangers are far from rare. Although these estimates are out-of-date, it has been said that each year about 76,000 people go to the hospital for gastrointestinal bleeding related to ibuprofen, and perhaps 7600 people die. Although this is just a fraction of the about 35,000 that die each year from opioid painkillers, it still represents a serious epidemic, and we need to understand why this happens.
Studying Personal Dosage
Overdosing on any medication begins with the decisions of people taking them. That’s why researchers sought to determine the characteristics of ibuprofen users and determine how many of them were likely to dangerously overuse the medication. They had more than 1300 individual users of ibuprofen and other NSAIDs use an online diary to chart their usage.
All the participants took ibuprofen at least once during the journal week, and 16% took it every day. The study showed that 11% of users took too much ibuprofen, exceeding dosage on 9% of use days.
The people who were more likely to overuse ibuprofen were men with chronic pain who believed they should determine their own dosage. Being a smoker and not knowing the maximum one-time and daily dosage were also associated with higher risk of taking too much ibuprofen.
Although this study focused on the dangers of ibuprofen, and doctors in the story recommended that people switch to acetaminophen for many pain indications because it was safer, it’s important to remember that acetaminophen also comes with serious health risks. In particular, liver toxicity is a dangerou side effect of acetaminophen use. Acetaminophen may be associated with 30,000 to 100,000 emergency room visits every year in the US, and the drug accounts for 50% of acute liver failures from overdose. About 20% of all people needing a liver transplant are in need because of acetaminophen.
Drug-Free Treatment for Chronic Pain
Although over-the-counter pain medications are useful for occasional use and can really help control pain, it’s important to use them only as recommended. It may also be best to avoid them for control of chronic pain conditions like TMJ.
Instead, drug-free TMJ treatment options such as TENS or a bite splint can be used to reduce or eliminate pain so you don’t have to go to the medicine cabinet on a daily basis.