The Hidden Dangers of Self-Medicating with OTC Drugs

By James Campbell, MD, Guest Columnist

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently unveiled guidelines for primary care physicians on the use of opioids for chronic pain. Not surprisingly, the guidelines urge physicians to first try non-pharmacologic and non-opioid treatments before resorting to opioid therapy.

If you’re one of the millions of Americans living with pain on a daily basis, it’s likely you’re not a stranger to over-the-counter (OTC), non-prescription pain medications such as naproxen (brand name Aleve), ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin), aspirin and acetaminophen (Tylenol).

In fact, most of my patients with chronic pain began their quest for relief with a cocktail of OTC pain relievers, muscle relaxants and even alcohol, before seeking professional help and eventually graduating to prescription treatments such as opioids, anti-depressants and anticonvulsants.

While OTC pain medications are generally safe when taken at their recommended doses, it’s all too common for patients to unknowingly put themselves at risk of a fatal accidental overdose or serious drug-drug interactions by mixing OTC pain medications or taking them in combination with prescription treatments for pain or other common health conditions.

Given the sheer magnitude of serious adverse events and fatalities associated with opioids, the hidden, yet preventable dangers of the pain medications on your pharmacy shelves are not often discussed.

Let’s take one of the most common OTC pain relievers: acetaminophen. When used as directed within the advised dosing guidelines, acetaminophen is safe and effective. However, if a person takes more than one medication that contains acetaminophen and exceeds the maximum recommended dose, they may be at risk of serious liver damage.

This happens so often that acetaminophen overdose is the leading cause of calls to poison control centers in the United States -- more than 100,000 instances per year – and are responsible for more than 56,000 emergency room visits.

In fact, in 2011, in an effort to reduce the risk of severe liver injury from acetaminophen overdose, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asked drug manufacturers to limit the strength of acetaminophen in prescription medications, including combination acetaminophen and opioid products, to no more than 325 mg per tablet, capsule or other dosage unit.

Then in 2014, the FDA recommended that health care professionals discontinue prescribing and dispensing prescription combination products that contain more than 325 mg of acetaminophen.

While the FDA’s efforts may help curb accidental overdose related to prescription medications that contain acetaminophen (Tylenol with codeine, for example), it does little to address the risks of OTC acetaminophen or other OTC pain medications such as ibuprofen, a type of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), which can cause gastrointestinal bleeding and injury, and cardiovascular side effects when taken on a chronic basis.

Drug Interactions

In addition to the risk of overdose, people taking multiple OTC and prescription medications for pain and other conditions are also at risk of serious drug-drug interactions. Simply put, any “drug” – whether it be a medicine, vitamin, supplement or even alcohol – that enters your body and alters your natural internal chemistry has the potential to interact or alter the intended effect or unintended side effect of other medications.

Even though most medications are accompanied by warnings about combining them with other drugs, most vitamins and supplements are not -- so, unless you’re a licensed medical professional, it’s virtually impossible to recognize the potential for drug-drug interactions.

If you’re using OTC medications, whether alone or with prescription medications, to cope with pain on a daily basis, here are three precautionary steps you can take to safeguard yourself against the risk of accidental overdose or drug-drug interactions.

1) Recognize that ALL medications, whether OTC or prescription, can cause harm if used improperly, and the fact that some medications are available without a prescription does not mean they are inherently safe. Read the labels that come with your medications. Tylenol, Advil and Vicodin are household names, so it can be easy to overlook their “generic” names (or the active ingredient in each).

For example, the generic name for Tylenol is acetaminophen, while that of Vicodin is acetaminophen hydrocodone. Without close examination of either label, a person taking Vicodin and Tylenol together could be inadvertently exceeding the recommended dosage of acetaminophen.

2) Consult a medical professional before you take more than one medication on a daily basis. If your chronic pain is being treated by a physician, be sure to tell them (even if it’s on your medical history) about any OTC or prescription medications you are currently taking. This includes vitamins and other supplements that may seem harmless, but could interact with your pain medications.

3) If you are independently treating your chronic pain, make a list of all the medications, vitamins and supplements you take on a regular basis and share them with your local pharmacist. Pharmacists can identify potential drug-drug interactions like taking acetaminophen and ibuprofen on a long-term basis, which can result in an increased risk of developing kidney problems.

The American Chronic Pain Association also recommends using the same pharmacy for all your prescriptions, so that the pharmacist can screen health information and current medications to avoid the pitfalls of overdose and drug interactions.

As a neurosurgeon with a special interest in pain for over 30 years, I’m empathetic to the daily struggle that patients face and their desperate quest for relief, seeking anything and everything that can simply make the pain stop.

For the patients who are fighting this seemingly endless battle with pain without the help of a medical professional, I hope I’ve provided some useful information and practical advice to help avoid serious risks associated with self-medicating. However, people living with moderate to severe chronic pain may benefit from a consultation with a licensed pain management specialist, who can help guide you toward steps that will help reduce your pain. 

James Campbell, MD, has spent the last 30 years pioneering efforts to improve the diagnosis and treatment of patients with chronic pain. 

Dr. Campbell is professor emeritus of Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and is the founder of the Johns Hopkins Blaustein Pain Treatment Center - one of the largest pain research centers in the U.S. He is also a former president of the American Pain Society. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Researchers Say NSAIDs Cause Heart Damage

By Pat Anson, Editor

Researchers have known for many years that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Now they may finally be learning why the pain relievers can be harmful.

In experiments on heart cells from rats and mice, scientists at the University of California, Davis, found that NSAIDs reduced the activity of cardiac cells at pharmacological levels found in humans. Their study was recently published in the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology.

“We knew these non-steroidal anti-inflammatories had negative side effects for heart disease and stroke risk, “ said lead author Aldrin Gomes, a UC Davis associate professor of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior. “But now we have an idea of some of the mechanisms behind it.”

NSAIDs are widely used to treat everything from fever and headache to low back pain and arthritis. They are found in so many different products -- such as ibuprofen, Advil and Motrin -- that many consumers may not be aware how often they use NSAIDs. 

Several studies have found that NSAIDs increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and other health problems, but the exact cause has been unclear.

The UC Davis researchers compared naproxen, considered the safest over-the-counter NSAID, with a more potent anti-inflammatory, the prescription drug meclofenamate sodium (MS).

They found that MS increased reactive oxygen species, impaired mitochondrial function, decreased proteasome function, and increased cardiac cell death. Naproxen did not affect proteasome function or cause heart cells to die, but it did impair mitochondrial function and increase reactive oxygen species produced in cardiac cells.

“We were surprised to see that many of the NSAIDs we tested were causing the cardiac cell to die when used for prolonged periods,” said Gomes. “Some people are taking these drugs too often, and this is a problem. These drugs are abused.”

For moderate pain, Gomes suggests rubbing an anti-inflammatory topically onto the pained area, which would not expose the entire body to the drug. Taking an antioxidant like vitamin C before ingesting a NSAID may also reduce cardiac cell death.

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 agency said studies have shown 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.

The FDA said people who have a history of heart disease, particularly those who recently had a heart attack or cardiac bypass surgery, are at the greatest risk. But the risk is also present for people who don't have heart problems.

“Everyone may be at risk – even people without an underlying risk for cardiovascular disease,” said Judy Racoosin, MD, deputy director of FDA’s Division of Anesthesia, Analgesia, and Addiction Products.

In a major study published recently in the European Heart Journal, a number of leading heart specialists warned that there is no "solid evidence" that NSAIDs are safe.

"When doctors issue prescriptions for NSAIDs, they must in each individual case carry out a thorough assessment of the risk of heart complications and bleeding. NSAIDs should only be sold over the counter when it comes with an adequate warning about the associated cardiovascular risks. In general, NSAIDs are not be used in patients who have or are at high-risk of cardiovascular diseases," said co-author Christian Torp-Pedersen, a professor in cardiology at Aalborg University in Denmark.

Aleve & Other Pain Relievers Reduce Fertility in Women

By Pat Anson, Editor

Health experts have warned for years about the side effects of over-the-counter pain relievers – everything from liver failure to heart disease to hearing loss.

Now researchers are saying that Aleve and some other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) reduce the fertility of women so significantly they could potentially be used as an emergency form of contraception.

The results of a small study presented at the European League Against Rheumatism Annual Congress show that three NSAIDs --  naproxen, diclofenac, and etoricoxib -- inhibited ovulation in women after just a few days of treatment.

Naproxen, diclofenac, and etoricoxib are the active ingredients in several brand name drugs sold around the world, including Aleve, Voltaren, and Arcoxia, respectively. Etoricoxib is not approved for use in the United States.

Thirty nine Iraqi women of childbearing age who suffered from back pain took part in the study; receiving diclofenac (100mg once daily), naproxen (500mg twice daily), etoricoxib (90mg once daily), or a placebo.

Treatment was given for 10 days from day 10 of the onset of their menstrual cycle, with their progesterone levels and follicle diameter analyzed via blood sample and sonography.

“After just ten days of treatment we saw a significant decrease in progesterone, a hormone essential for ovulation, across all treatment groups, as well as functional cysts in one third of patients,” said study investigator Professor Sami Salman, Department of Rheumatology, University of Baghdad.

“These findings show that even short-term use of these popular, over-the-counter drugs could have a significant impact on a woman's ability to have children. This needs to be better communicated to patients with rheumatic diseases, who may take these drugs on a regular basis with little awareness of the impact.”

Of the women receiving NSAIDs, only 6.3% taking diclofenac, 25% taking naproxen, and 27.3% taking etoricoxib ovulated, compared with 100% of the control group that was not taking a pain reliever.

The dominant follicle remained unruptured in 75% of the women taking diclofenac, 25% taking naproxen and 33% of the patients receiving etoricoxib. Rupturing of the dominant follicle and the subsequent release of an oocyte (unfertilized egg), is essential for ovulation to occur.

“These findings highlight the harmful effects NSAIDs may have on fertility, and could open the door for research into a new emergency contraception with a more favorable safety profile than those currently in use,” said Salman.

NSAIDs are among the most common pain relief medicines in the world. Every day more than 30 million Americans use them to relieve pain, lower fever and reduce inflammation.