Common Painkillers Linked to Increased Risk of Cardiac Arrest

People often reach for over-the-counter painkillers to treat painful conditions. But by doing this, they may be causing damage to their heart, warns a new study.

The new research in Denmark has raised fears that a very common painkiller could increase a person’s risk of suffering life-threatening cardiac arrest, which occurs when the heart suddenly stops pumping blood.

A variety of medicines from the family of painkillers, known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), are available over the counter, including ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve). These painkilling medications are widely used to treat fever, relieve arthritis pain and other common painful conditions and inflammation. However, previous studies have linked these drugs to elevated risk of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, liver damage and ulcers.

Findings of the Danish study are in line with those study claims, showing Ibuprofen could heighten the risk of a potentially fatal cardiac arrest. Researchers in Denmark found that taking ibuprofen was associated with a 31 percent increased risk of the cardiac arrest.

Not only ibuprofen, even other medicines from the NSAID family posed a similar danger, the findings showed.

“Allowing these drugs to be purchased without a prescription, and without any advice or restrictions, sends a message to the public that they must be safe,” Gunnar H. Gislason, a professor of cardiology at Copenhagen University Hospital Gentofte in Denmark, said in a press release. “Previous studies have shown that NSAIDs are related to increased cardiovascular risk which is a concern because they are widely used.”

For the study, Dr. Gislason and colleagues reviewed the medical records of 28,947people who had suffered cardiac arrests between 2001 and 2010, as well as looked at all NSAID prescriptions filled at Danish pharmacies since 1995.

The team found that 3,376 patients with cardiac arrest had taken any of the prescription NSAID pain relievers, which included diclofenac, naproxen and ibuprofen, and the COX-2 selective inhibitors rofecoxib and celecoxib, in the 30 days before their potentially fatal cardiovascular event.

They found, the use of NSAIDs was associated with a 31 percent increased risk of cardiac arrest, while diclofenac raised the risk by 50 percent and prescription-strength ibuprofen showed a 31 percent increased risk. Conversely, naproxen, celecoxib and rofecoxib were not associated with an elevated risk of cardiac arrest.

“The findings are a stark reminder that NSAIDs are not harmless,” Gislason stressed. “Diclofenac and ibuprofen, both commonly used drugs, were associated with significantly increased risk of cardiac arrest. NSAIDs should be used with caution and for a valid indication. They should probably be avoided in patients with cardiovascular disease or many cardiovascular risk factors.”

The authors reported their findings in the European Heart Journal—Cardiovascular Pharmacotherapy.