June 01, 2018

Pain medications

A careful look at the risks

A sore back from a day of yardwork? It may be second nature to pull out a nonprescription pain reliever from the medicine cabinet to manage it. Or perhaps it's an everyday arthritis pain that leaves you wishing for better relief.

When used appropriately, pain relievers can be very effective at reducing pain and improving quality of life. Still, it's wise to be cautious and understand the risks.

No risk-free medication

Nonprescription staples for pain — including acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) — often aren't given a second thought. They're easy to come by, effective for minor aches and pains, and generally considered safe for most people when low doses are used for short periods of time.

However, the potential for harm can climb as you take higher doses of pain relievers, or take pain relievers for longer periods. This is especially true in older adults, as natural declines in organ function and resiliency — not to mention potential organ disease — may increase susceptibility to side effects.

When used sparingly, the side effects of pain relievers are generally limited. But depending on the drug, possible serious risks may occur, including:

  • Stomach bleeding
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver disease
  • Cardiovascular risks, including high blood pressure and heart attack
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)

A safe dose

Generally, it's best to limit your use of nonprescription pain relievers to reduce your risk of...