Dangers of Over the Counter Pain Relievers

Prolonged use of over-the-counter pain medications carries some significant risks

Credit: Flickr / fauxto_digit

Flickr / fauxto_digit

Use over-the-counter pain medications on a temporary basis only

Being an ultra-runner, I’m no stranger to using over-the-counter pain medications

Using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil), aspirin and acetaminophen (Tylenol) is common practice among endurance athletes.

I once downed six Advil over a 4-hour period during a 50 km race. I’ve also known athletes who took the pills on a daily basis. Advil is jokingly referred to as “vitamin I” (for ibuprofen) by runners and triathletes.

In some cases these drugs are needed to control inflammation and pain for an injury. Taking these medications short term, especially when advised by a therapist or doctor, has minimal risks.

Possible Negative Side Effects of Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers

Regular, long-term use of NSAIDs poses some serious health risks, including:

  1. Ulcers, stomach bleeding and damage to the intestinal tract
  2. Kidney damage by reducing blood flow to the organs
  3. Degeneration of joint cartilage
  4. Decreased protein production after exercise. You won’t rebuild and repair muscle as quickly
  5. Impaired healing. By interfering with inflammation you could slow the healing process

When to Use NSAIDs

If your physical therapist, doctor or other medical professional advises you to take them for a brief period then you’re probably okay to do so. In most cases, they will be used to help deal with long-term inflammation such as that caused by an overuse injury like tendonitis.

But don’t use these medications to combat pain and inflammation caused by excessive exercise or doing exercise you’re not accustomed to.

The muscle soreness you experience in this case is called delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). You could actually be interfering with the body’s natural adaptation process by limiting inflammation in these cases.

Train smarter by easing into new activities to decrease the chance of DOMS. Don’t increase your training too much but follow a more progressive exercise program. For example, don’t increase your running mileage more than 10% from week to week. 

If you do end up experiencing DOMS, there’s really not much you can do. The damage has already been done and all you can basically do is suck it up. The good news is you’re less likely to get DOMS from the same activity again because your body will be stronger.