Researchers Identify Riskiest NSAIDs

By Pat Anson, Editor

The risk of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) contributing to cardiovascular disease has been known for decades. But now we have a better idea which NSAIDs cause the most risk.

A large study published in the British Medical Journal found that use of any NSAID was associated with a 20 percent higher risk of being hospitalized with heart failure. Seven NSAIDs were found to be the riskiest, depending on the dose taken:

  • diclofenac
  • ibuprofen
  • indomethacin
  • ketorolac
  • naproxen
  • nimesulide
  • piroxicam

In addition, two COX 2 inhibitors -- etoricoxib and rofecoxib – were also associated with a higher risk of heart failure.

“Our study, based on real world data on almost 10 million NSAIDs users from four European countries, provides evidence that current use of both COX 2 inhibitors and traditional individual NSAIDs are associated with increased risk of heart failure. Furthermore, the magnitude of the association varies between individual NSAIDs and according to the prescribed dose,” researchers reported.

The risk of heart failure doubled for people taking diclofenac, etoricoxib, indomethacin, piroxicam, or rofecoxib at very high doses. But even medium doses of indomethacin and etoricoxib were associated with increased risk. 

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

An editorial in BMJ faulted the study for not going into more detail on the absolute risk between different NSAIDs.

“Information on absolute risks is valuable for clinicians and patients evaluating the balance between benefit and harm of treatment. Low risk patients might accept the small additional risk associated with treatment while higher risk patients might prefer to consider alternative treatments,” said Gunnar Gislason and Christian Torp-Pedersen, who are both professors of cardiology in Denmark.

“In some patients other pain treatments, such as paracetamol (acetaminophen) or a weak opiate, might be a good choice. For patients who do need NSAID treatment, it is important to consider the different risk profiles of the individual drugs. The selective COX 2 inhibitors and diclofenac have repeatedly been associated with higher cardiovascular risk, and therefore it seems prudent to avoid them and consider lower risk naproxen at the lowest effective dose.”

Several previous studies have found that NSAIDs increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and other health problems, but the exact cause has been unclear. A recent study at the University of California, Davis, found that NSAIDs reduced the activity of cardiac cells and led to cell death.

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

Last year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered warning labels for all NSAIDs to be strengthened to indicate they increase the risk of a fatal heart attack or stroke. The FDA said studies found the risk of serious side effects can occur in the first few weeks of using NSAIDs and could increase the longer people use the drugs. The revised warning does not apply to aspirin.