Are painkillers actually prolonging your back pain?

Research suggests NSAIDs could increase risk of pain becoming chronic

Some 16 million Americans have chronic back pain, and many use NSAIDs for relief -- but a new study shows that blocking inflammation after injury might increase the risk of the pain becoming chronic.

When the back pain strikes, one of the fastest solutions is taking a couple pain reliever pills -- but is that over-the-counter medicine actually making things worse?

About 16 million Americans are suffering from chronic back pain. More generally, about 80% of people in their lifetime will experience low back pain, according to Dr. Candice Burnett, a pain management specialist. And a good portion of that 80% will experience pain for three months or longer, Burnett said.

To help ease the pain, many people take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, also known as NSAID. These over-the-counter medications help reduce inflammation after injury, which can subdue the pain.

But new research suggests NSAIDs may not be an effective solution for those struggling with back pain.

A new study by McGill University in Canada suggests that blocking inflammation after an injury may increase the risk of the pain becoming chronic. Researchers theorize the medication interferes with the body’s own natural healing process.

Other recent studies show that daily use of an anti-inflammatory medication may lead to stomach problems, high blood pressure and kidney damage.

Instead of reaching for back pain pills first, some medical guidelines suggest starting with non-drug treatments, including:

  • Exercise
  • Yoga
  • Physical therapy
  • Heat
  • Massage

Ultimately, experts say it is important to find relief from back pain.

“It’s been linked to depression, sleep problems, anxiety,” Dr. Burnett said. “So, having something that can effectively treat these patients who have been suffering really does improve their quality of life.”

Some medical experts have urged caution when interpreting the results of the recent McGill study, arguing that it didn’t rely on a clinical trial. Still, others say this study is important because it reminds patients and doctors to consider other treatment options before just popping a pill.

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About the Authors:

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.