Tuesday, February 17, 2015

NSAIDs - the debate that continues to inflame!

A good friend of mine, who just happens to be a retired medical man, recently fell and broke his hip. Nothing too unusual for a man in his seventies, but when we visited him in hospital he was furtively hiding his pain medication in a tissue and tucking it under his pillow. “It’s an Anti-Inflammatory” he confided conspiratorially The look of  confusion on my face prompted him to continue “They might be OK for pain relief but they interfere with bone healing and I want to get back on my feet as quickly as possible”.

I have to admit to always being a little nervous about using NSAIDs - Non steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs - having studied medicine during the period when Phenylbutazone, the first proper NSAID, was introduced. BTZ, as it was popularly called at the time, was later discovered to cause bone marrow depression in many of those who took them and swiftly removed from “The Market” . 

But first a piece of history:

The fascinating ability to treat fever and inflammation dates back about 2500 (400 B.C.) years ago to a time when the Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed an extract from willow bark and leaves. Later in the 17th century, the active ingredient of willow bark Salicin was identified in Europe. Acetylsalicyclic acid (Aspirin), a more palatable form of Salicin, was produced commercially by Bayer in 1899. However, the mechanism of action of anti-inflammatory and analgesic agents such as aspirin, and its later derivative Indomethacin, were not discovered until the early 1960’s when medical science was really beginning to find it’s feet. Things really changed in the seventies, when John Vane discovered the mechanism of action of aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) opening the door to a pandoras box of new pharmaceuticals to treat pain and inflammation.

Since then the place of NSAIDs has become embedded in our lexicon of treatments for all things that involve inflammation and pain - especially those involving our joints. But the target tissues for these medications don’t just lie in our bones and joints, they are also to be found throughout the body in our stomachs, our kidneys, our hearts and our brains too. As time has gone by, the goal of Pharmaceutical Companies has been to develop medications that produce fewer side effects whilst maintaining their anti-inflammatory effects.

So what are the possible side effects of NSAIDs
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Kidney Disease
  • Liver disease
  • Bleeding
  • Induce asthma attacks
  • Rashes, drowsiness, headaches

All of these side effects reflect the areas around the body that these medications have a collateral action upon, as well as the inflamed areas they’re principally targeted at.
A concern that I’ve had for many years is that some of these NSAIDs are now available “Over the counter” and are commonly used in children too.



The vast majority of childhood inflammations and infections will settle without the use of medications. Common sense and patience are far better treatments than rushing to the Pharmacy for a magical “quick fix” - because that is exactly where those “quick fixes” should remain, in the realms of fantasy and fairy tales!

The human body has evolved brilliantly over the millennia to deal with minor injuries, minor illnesses and local inflammations. For major stuff you should always seek medical advice, because in most cases, Doctors do know more than you do.

But let me finish by saying that although Doctors know a vast amount about the human body, they are still far, far, far away from knowing everything. My medical friend with his broken hip refused his NSAIDs because he believed that NSAIDs slowed bone healing. Well, a thorough search of all the scientific papers written on the subject came to the conclusion:

“There is no robust clinical and/or scientific evidence to discard the use of NSAIDs in patients suffering from a fracture, but equal lack of evidence does not constitute proof of the absence of an effect. The majority of the available evidence is based on animal findings and these results should be interpreted with caution due to the differences in physiological mechanisms between humans and animals. ….. Till then, clinicians should treat NSAIDs as a risk factor for bone healing impairment and (they) should be avoided in high-risk patients.” 

ScientificWorldJournal. 2012; 2012: 606404.
“Do Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs Affect Bone Healing? A Critical Analysis”
Ippokratis Pountos, 1 Theodora Georgouli, 1 Giorgio M. Calori, 2 and Peter V. Giannoudis 1, 3 , *


Ampersands & angle brackets need to be encoded.