Common painkillers such as ibuprofen and naproxen are already known to raise people’s risk of a heart attack. Now a new study shows the risk comes within the first week of using the drugs.
The study doesn’t mean that everyone should avoid taking the pills to treat headaches, lower fevers and reduce aches and pains, but does suggest people who know they have a bigger-than-average heart attack risk should avoid long-term use and high doses, an international team of researchers have claimed.
The study, which looked at prescribed non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (or NSAIDs, the technical term for what are common painkillers) found that there was an increased risk as early as in the first week of use and especially within the first month of taking high doses of such medication.
Dr Mike Knapton, an associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation,said the study “worryingly highlights just how quickly you become at risk of having a heart attack after starting NSAIDs”.
“Whether you are being prescribed painkillers like ibuprofen, or buying them over the counter, people must be made aware of the risk and alternative medication should be considered where appropriate,” he said.
The study, published in the British Medical Journal,analysed data from almost 450,000 people, 61,460 of whom had suffered a heart attack.
They carried out a review of relevant studies from various healthcare databases including those from Canada, Finland and the UK.
Researchers examined the effect over time of taking three common anti-inflammatory painkillers,ibuprofen, diclofenac and naproxen,and two others, called celecoxib and rofecoxib.
The increased risk of suffering a heart attack was between 24 per cent and 58 per cent overall when taking the drugs, compared with not using them.
The study found that taking any dose of NSAIDs for one week, one month, or more than a month was associated with an increased risk of heart attack.
Overall, the increase in risk of a heart attack is about 20-50% if using NSAIDs compared with not using these medications.
To put this in perspective, as a result of this increase, the risk of heart attack due to NSAIDs is on average about 1% annually.
Prof Jane Mitchell, Head of Cardiothoracic Pharmacology, Imperial College London, said: “These painkillers include some of the most commonly taken drugs worldwide and although the increased risk of heart attack might be low, because of the scale of their use it is seen as an important problem.
“Patients, doctors and drug companies are worried,concern over an increased risk of heart attacks associated with drugs like celecoxib or ibuprofen has slowed drug development in this area to a virtual stand-still.
“We should also remember that there is some evidence some of these drugs may help prevent some cancers but they are not used because of concerns over side effects.”
The scientific community has stressed that the new BMJ study does not prove a causal link between painkillers and heart attack, pointing out that there may be other factors connecting to the two.
For example, the increased heart attack risk may be caused by the complaint which prompts a person to take painkillers, rather than by the painkillers themselves.
These are obeservational study based on drug prescribing or dispensing and not all potentially influential factors could be taken into account.
Although this means that conclusions cannot be made about cause and effect, the authors say that their study was the largest investigation of its type and that its real-world origin helped to ensure that findings were broadly generalise.