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Next time you hurt, you may want to think twice about reaching for a pill bottle. Some of the most widely used painkillers may increase your heart attack risk, according to new research.

That includes both prescription and over-the-counter pills—and the elevated risk appeared after taking them for only a few days.

Understanding the numbers

The University of Montreal Hospital Research Center analyzed data on more than 400,000 people and found those who regularly used nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) raised their odds of a heart attack by 20 to 50 percent. That figure may sound alarming, but it amounts to a small increase: one extra heart attack for every 100 people who take NSAIDS every day for a year.

The increased risk became evident after one week of NSAID use and persisted over longer periods. High doses increased the risk during the first month. But although a significant link was detected, this type of study can’t prove NSAIDs cause heart attacks.

Researchers focused on these medications:

  • Celecobix (sold under the brand name Celebrex)
  • Diclofenac (Voltaren and other brands)
  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, and others)
  • Naproxen (Aleve, Midol, and others)
  • Rofecoxib (Vioxx and others; now withdrawn from the market due to safety concerns)

Acetaminophen, sold as Tylenol and other brands, is not an NSAID and was not studied.

What to do

Even a small possible rise in heart attack risk isn’t good news—especially since NSAIDs are taken by about 29 million Americans every day. In a news release, the researchers conclude, “Prescribers should compare risks and benefits of NSAIDs before initiating treatment, especially for the highest doses."

If you’re concerned about the findings, talk with your doctor about your heart attack risk and whether it makes sense to adjust your NSAID medication. Work together to see if you can still get adequate relief if you take less. Stop taking it as soon as you can.

It’s probably okay to experiment on your own with reduced doses of over-the-counter NSAIDs, but carefully follow your doctor’s directions when taking prescription NSAIDs. And don’t take both types at the same time without your doctor’s approval.

Pills aren’t the only thing that could help. Consider nondrug ways to relieve pain, especially chronic pain. Among your many options:

  • Exercise
  • Chiropractic
  • Yoga
  • Acupuncture
  • Physical therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Mind-body techniques such as meditation and breathing exercises
  • Therapeutic massage

Sometimes pain is an urgent warning that you need medical attention. Consult your doctor right away if you develop sudden, severe, or persistent pain.

Have you tried nondrug pain relief remedies? Tell us what worked—or what didn’t—by commenting below.