Use of NSAIDs Risky for Osteoarthritis Patients

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It’s long been known that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen can raise the risk of cardiovascular problems. A large new study in Canada has documented how NSAIDs can significantly raise the risk of heart disease, congestive heart failure and stroke in people with osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a joint disorder that leads to thinning of cartilage and progressive joint damage. NSAIDs are frequently used to treat the pain and inflammation caused by OA.

The Canadian study, published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatology, looked at nearly 7,750 osteoarthritis patients in British Columbia and compared them with a control group of over 23,000 patients without OA. The average age of the participants was 65 and a little over half were women.

The risk of developing cardiovascular disease was found to be about 23% higher among people with OA than the control group. Researchers attributed about 41% of that increased risk to the use of NSAIDs.

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NSAIDs appeared to play a significant role in several cardiovascular problems. The risk of congestive heart failure was 42% higher among people with OA, followed by a 17% greater risk of heart disease and a 14% greater risk of stroke.

"To the best of our knowledge, this is the first longitudinal study to evaluate the mediating role of NSAID use in the relationship between osteoarthritis and cardiovascular disease in a large population-based sample," said senior author Aslam Anis, PhD, of the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia.

"Our results indicate that osteoarthritis is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease and suggest a substantial proportion of the increased risk is due to the use of NSAIDs. This is highly relevant because NSAIDs are some of the most commonly used drugs to manage pain in patients with osteoarthritis."

The association of cardiovascular disease with NSAIDs is consistent with previous research.  A large international study in 2017, for example, found that prescription strength NSAIDs raises the risk of a heart attack as soon as the first week of use.

NSAIDs are used to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation, and are found in a wide variety of over-the-counter products, including cold and flu remedies. They are found in so many products -- such as Advil and Motrin -- that many consumers may not be aware how often they use NSAIDs. 

Canada adopted guidelines in 2017 that recommend NSAIDs as an alternative to opioid pain medication. The guideline makes no mention of the health risks associated with NSAIDs, but focuses on their cost effectiveness.

“NSAID-based treatment may have lower mean costs and higher effectiveness relative to opioids,” the guideline states. “Naproxen-based regimens in particular may be more cost effective compared to opioids and other NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and celecoxib.”

Opioid guidelines released in 2016 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommend NSAIDs as an alternative to opioids, but acknowledge the medications “do have risks, including gastrointestinal bleeding or perforation as well as renal and cardiovascular risks.”

In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration ordered warning labels for all NSAIDs to indicate they increase the risk of a fatal heart attack or stroke. The FDA warning does not apply to aspirin.

The European Society of Cardiology recommends limited use of NSAIDs by patients who are at risk of heart failure. People already diagnosed with heart failure should refrain from using NSAIDs altogether.