It's fine to pop the occasional Advil for knee pain or Aleve for a headache. Just don't go gobbling handfuls of painkillers daily – or, worse, multiple times a day. Although these and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, can keep pain from sidelining you from an important work meeting or golf with the guys, taking too many too often can have serious consequences. Research published in 'The Lancet' in May linked high doses of popular NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, Aleve, and Celebrex, to heightened risk of heart problems and gastrointestinal issues.
Scientists from the University of Oxford in the U.K. combed through more than 750 previous studies of NSAID users and determined that all of these drugs increased upper GI problems and doubled heart failure risk. More specifically, the selective COX-2 inhibitors – that's your Celebrex and Vioxx – and diclofenac, a drug more popular in Europe, increased major vascular events by about one-third.
Although this review looked at high doses of NSAIDs (exact milligrams varied from study to study), lower doses are not risk-free, says Dr. Marie Griffin, a professor of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt University, who published commentary on the research. She says past studies have shown that even low doses of Celebrex (about 100 mg) and diclofenac (about 75 mg) raise heart attack risk, and 500 mg of Aleve can mess with the digestive track. Even ibuprofen can be troublesome if you also take aspirin for heart protection, because it can block out aspirin's effects.
And these aren't just health issues that may flare up down the road. "The risks start immediately," Griffin says. "However, your absolute risk depends on how much time you're exposed to the drugs. You are much more likely to have a drug-related event if exposed for years than for days or weeks."
Griffin says these health risks are much lower for young, healthy people, especially those with no known history of heart disease or previous GI bleeding or ulcers – but that doesn't mean you're in the clear. "All drugs carry risk, so use these cautiously and only as directed," she says. "Plus, NSAIDs can cause or worsen high blood pressure, another reason to limit use."