hermits come out of their winter hibernation for outdoor activities. Digging, weeding and slinging mulch in the garden; spring cleaning in the attic or garage; and weekend running, tennis or softball can all contribute to strained muscles and aching backs.
For relief, most people turn to over-the-counter pain relievers. They are readily available and affordable and seem like an easy solution for stiff joints and soreness. Surveys by Roper and the National Consumers League estimate that over 20 million Americans swallow a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like ibuprofen or naproxen every day.
Some long distance runners, bikers and hikers refer to ibuprofen as “vitamin I.” That’s because it is such a common part of their daily regimen. They don’t even think of this NSAID as a powerful medicine and they hardly ever heed the warning to take OTC pain relievers for no more than 10 days without medical supervision.
Only about one person out of five reads the directions on the pain reliever label (Journal of Rheumatology, Nov. 2005). Fewer than one in three checks out dosing instructions. About one quarter take more than the recommended dose. About half of those surveyed did not realize that OTC pain relievers could cause any harm.
But swallowing pain pills without reading the labels can land you in a world of hurt. The most obvious complication from NSAIDs like Advil, Aleve or aspirin is stomach upset. This can turn into a lot more than a bad bellyache, though. Bleeding ulcers can occur even at relatively low doses and may produce no warning symptoms. Thousands die each year as a consequence.
Other NSAID complications include high blood pressure, kidney problems, allergic reactions, skin rash and liver damage. Interactions with other medicines such as blood pressure pills or blood thinners like Coumadin (warfarin) or Plavix can be quite dangerous.
Even savvy consumers who would like to read labels carefully may find it difficult to locate important information. Fine print and poor design make it hard to locate some important safety information (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online March 30, 2009).
Many people use OTC pain relievers for short periods of time with no complications. But folks with arthritis or athletes who need pain relief for the long term may want to look beyond ibuprofen and naproxen.
We have collected a host of options including herbs and home remedies in our Guide to Alternatives for Arthritis.
Avoiding aches and pains during the first several weeks of beautiful spring weather may also involve some common sense. Pacing oneself and being careful to avoid overexertion can be very helpful in getting back into shape. If pain pills become necessary, the lowest dose for the shortest period of time is the safest approach.