When it comes to over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, ibuprofen is pretty ubiquitous: Most of us probably have a bottle or two around the house. And although, like all drugs, it comes with its own sets of warnings and cautions, this type of medication—known as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID—is a popular choice when it comes to addressing pain relief.
“Estimates suggest that about 15 percent of the US population takes an NSAID regularly (including those that are over the counter and prescription strength),” reports Harvard Health. “Along with sporadic users, more than 30 billion doses are taken each year.”
“[Ibuprofen] works by reducing hormones that cause inflammation and pain in the body,” explains Rima Arora, PharmD, Director of Pharmacy at DiRx Health.” It is used to reduce fever and treat pain or inflammation caused by many conditions such as headache, toothache, back pain, arthritis, menstrual cramps, or some minor injuries.” But what exactly happens to your body when you take ibuprofen? Read on to find out.
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Pain relievers come in many varieties. “You can get non-prescription strength, over-the-counter NSAIDs in drug stores and supermarkets, where you can also buy less expensive generic (not brand name) aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium,” explains the Cleveland Clinic, which notes that NSAIDs reduces inflammation by blocking the production of the chemicals that cause it, and are different than some other types of pain medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol). “NSAIDs are good at treating pain caused by slow tissue damage, such as arthritis pain. NSAIDs also work well fighting back pain, menstrual cramps and headaches,” says the site.
Ibuprofen can be a very effective way to address pain relief. It’s inexpensive, available, and does not cause dependence, Drugs.com points out. But ibuprofen also has some potential downsides.
When dealing with pain—whether caused by illness, injury, or another condition—it’s common for people to choose between OTC medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen. The two types of drugs work differently; while ibuprofen is more likely to help with pain caused by inflammation (such as menstrual cramps or joint pain), acetaminophen is a better choice for pain that has other origins.
There are other differences, as well. “Acetaminophen is shown to be safe for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers,” cautions Mercy Care. “Ibuprofen is not recommended during pregnancy but is safe during breastfeeding.”
Because the two types of drugs work differently, they also have different potential side effects.
According to an article published by the National Library of Medicine, surveys showed that ibuprofen is the most frequently used over-the-counter pain relief. Many of the survey participants “were neither aware of nor believed they were at risk for side effects from NSAID,” reports the site. In addition, the authors found that “OTC analgesics including NSAID are widely used, are frequently taken inappropriately and potentially dangerously, and users are generally unaware of the potential for adverse side effects.”
One of the better-known downsides of ibuprofen is that it can be hard on your stomach. Ibuprofen usage carries the “risk of ulceration, bleeding, and perforation of the stomach, small intestine, or large intestine which can be fatal,” cautions Arora. According to Healthline, this is because ibuprofen affects prostaglandin levels. Prostaglandin helps with stomach health by decreasing the amount of stomach acid, and producing protective mucus. “When ibuprofen is taken in large doses or for a long time, less prostaglandin is produced,” says Healthline. “This can increase stomach acid and irritate the stomach lining, causing problems.”
Your kidneys are another place ibuprofen use can have an impact. When it comes to renal effects, “patients at the highest risks include those with impaired renal function, heart failure, liver dysfunction, those taking diuretics and ACED inhibitors and the elderly,” says Arora. “NSAIDs can make your body retain fluid and decrease the function of your kidneys [and] this may cause your blood pressure to rise even higher, putting greater stress on your heart and kidneys,” WebMD reports. “NSAIDs can also raise your risk for heart attack or stroke, especially in higher doses.”
Because ibuprofen and other NSAIDs can cause salt and water retention in the kidneys, “they can also make some blood pressure-lowering medicines, such as ACE inhibitors and diuretics, less effective—and a rise in blood pressure is likely to worsen heart failure,” says the British Health Foundation.
To avoid these conditions, Safe Medication advises using the lowest possible dose of ibuprofen, taking it (and other NSAIDs) with food or milk to help avoid stomach problems, and avoiding alcohol while taking NSAIDs.
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