You feel a headache coming on from a long day at the office … your knee is aching from your morning jog … when reaching into your medicine cabinet for common painkillers, you may not have realized that you were taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), a category of medications helpful for reducing pain and inflammation.

More than 23 million Americans take NSAIDs on a daily basis, including common over-the-counter medications like generics ibuprofen and naproxen. Additionally, between 2010 and 2011, doctors wrote 96 million prescriptions for NSAIDs. For most patients, these medications are safe and effective when used correctly. However, when used incorrectly, they can lead to serious consequences that may affect the kidneys, heart and digestive system (stomach, small intestines, colon, etc.).

“Like all medications, NSAIDs can cause side effects. Taking NSAIDs at high doses or for an extended period of time can put patients at risk, as can not treating pain adequately,” said Dr. Bill McCarberg, president of the Alliance for Rational Use of NSAIDs. “Furthermore, many patients are not aware that many medications they may take on a daily basis are NSAIDs. That’s why spreading awareness about the appropriate use of NSAIDs is so crucial.”

Up to half of all regular NSAID users experience problems with their digestive system that may include nausea, stomach pain, ulcers and increased bleeding. Each year, these complications result in 100,000 hospital visits. Kidney problems resulting from improper NSAID use can include edema ”“ swelling caused by an excess of fluid in the body ”“ kidney failure and high blood pressure. Elderly patients and those who already have kidney problems can be at higher risk for these side effects. Cardiovascular risks can be especially severe, including heart attack, stroke and in some cases death.

“To ensure appropriate and safe NSAID use, the Alliance for Rational Use of NSAIDs recommends that patients take the lowest effective dose for the shortest period of time required for relief,” said Dr. McCarberg. “Being educated about all the types of medications you’re taking is also an important step in responsible use.”

Doing something as simple as reading the label on a medication bottle can help ensure responsible use. Knowing when you’re taking an NSAID can help prevent taking more than one NSAID inadvertently. Making sure your physician knows about all of the medications ”“ prescription and over-the-counter ”“ you’re taking can also help avoid adverse drug reactions. And a pharmacist can be a great resource for information about medication safety.

“NSAIDs can be very helpful and effective, and patients should always consult with their physician or pharmacists about the potential side effects of any medication they are taking, including NSAIDs,” Dr. McCarberg said. “I encourage patients to take charge of their own health, and become advocates for ensuring that they and their families are using medications safely.”

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