Common Pain Relievers Tied to Higher Risk of Heart Attack

Ibuprofen gel tablets spill out of a pill bottle
Photo by Michelle Lee Photography /

Taking a common type of painkiller for as little as one week has been linked to an increased risk of heart attack.

That’s the gist of a study by an international team of researchers who wanted to better understand the heart attack risks associated with NSAID use in real-world circumstances.

NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, are a class of drugs used to treat pain and inflammation. You probably know some NSAIDs by their generic or brand names — some of which have become household names. The NSAIDs that the researchers studied are:

For the study, an international team of researchers led by Michèle Bally of the University of Montreal Hospital Research Center carried out a systematic review and a meta-analysis of studies from health care databases in Canada, Finland and the United Kingdom. The researchers analyzed data on about 447,000 people, including about 61,500 who had a heart attack. Their findings were recently published in the British medical journal The BMJ.

As the researchers summarized their findings: “taking any dose of NSAIDs for one week, one month, or more than a month was associated with an increased risk of myocardial infarction,” more commonly known as a heart attack.

Among the people whose data was studied, the risk of a heart attack was about 20 to 50 percent higher for those who used NSAIDs. Due to that finding, the researchers say the average risk of heart attack due to NSAIDs is about 1 percent annually.

The researchers also found that the risk was greatest with higher doses and during the first month of NSAID use.

Because the study was observational, the conclusions indicate only an association between higher heart attack risk and NSAID use, not a cause-and-effect relationship. The researchers note, though, that the analysis was “the largest investigation of its type” and allowed them to conclude with more than 90 percent probability that the NSAIDs they studied are associated with an increased heart attack risk.

Dr. Deepak Bhatt, executive director of interventional cardiovascular programs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, was not part of the study but offered perspective to CBS News. He says:

“The bottom line is, don’t treat these drugs like candy just because they’re sold over the counter. Treat them like any medications. Only use them if you really need to, lowest dose possible, for least amount of time.”

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