If a painkiller is available over the counter, there’s no harm in taking it, right? Not exactly. While common over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen are generally safe, overuse whether dose by dose or with chronic use can lead to very real, dangerous, and even lethal side effects. There are serious dangers of ibuprofen many people don’t realize.
In fact, ibuprofen can damage many systems in the body, and even cause surprising health issues. Here’s how to safely use it if needed, great alternatives for natural pain relief, and how overusing it can harm your body.
Ibuprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAIDs). It works by inhibiting prostaglandins, natural chemicals that “turn on” pain and inflammation in the body. Of all NSAIDs, it’s been rated the safest in terms of acute drug reactions. It’s also often taken in place of aspirin which sometimes causes stomach irritation.
Ibuprofen is often used for headaches, after injury, before, during, and after sporting events by athletes, and for chronic pain such as arthritis.
Most current daily dosages recommendations are 200-400 mg ibuprofen, every 4 hours, with a maximum of 3200 mg per day. However, even this amount can become concerning if taken longer than a week.
Amazingly, a British study of painkiller use found that one in 20 adults in Britain takes at least 6 painkillers every time they are feeling ill. The average painkiller intake per adult was almost 375 pills per year (1). Although some of this number is accounted for in those of 50 who take an aspirin per day, it’s still a high number as an average for those who are under 50.
Current Ibuprofen boxes contain the following warning:
-Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) cause an increased risk of serious cardiovascular (CV) thrombotic events, myocardial infarction and stroke, which can be fatal. This risk may occur early in treatment and may increase with duration of use.
-NSAIDs cause an increased risk of serious gastrointestinal (GI) adverse events including bleeding, ulceration, and perforation of the stomach or intestines, which can be fatal. These events can occur at any time during use and without warning symptoms. Elderly patients and patients with a prior history of peptic ulcer disease and/or GI bleeding are at a greater risk for serious GI events.
Here are more details and 6 serious dangers of ibuprofen:
This one is clear and stated on the medication itself.
A large meta-analysis in 2011 supported this statement. In a review of 31 trials, 116,429 patients, and more than 115,000 patient-years of follow-up, they concluded that none of the pain relievers studied were completely safe in terms of cardiovascular health. These included naproxen, ibuprofen, diclofenac, celecoxib, etoricoxib, rofecoxib, and lumiracoxib.
Ibuprofen proved to have the greatest association with stroke (2). Naproxen had the least risk.
In order to avoid this risk, many practitioners recommend using the lowest dose possible and consulting with a doctor before using it every day for more than a week. Interestingly, aspirin is not associated with the risk of heart attack or stroke, and instead, provides protection (3).
Ibuprofen use has been linked to gastrointestinal bleeding and ulcers.
One study out of Madrid found that normal and minimal use of ibuprofen was not a cause for concern. However, for those who take it in excess each day (a dose of 1200-2400 mg daily), might cause 5 times increased risk of gastrointestinal bleeding or torn stomach lining. And if these conditions are already an issue for you, using ibuprofen for pain relief may worsen the condition (4).
Why does it cause bleeding?
Ibuprofen inhibits the cyclooxygenase (COX) enzyme that promotes platelet aggregation. What’s more, chronic use of ibuprofen causes the stomach to lose its protective barrier and makes it more susceptible to injury.
It’s estimated that approximately 1/3 of all ulcers can be linked to aspirin and other painkiller use. More than 1/2 of all bleeding ulcers are linked to these drugs. Ibuprofen-induced ulcers are a real, current medical issue (5).
Potassium is an important mineral in the body. Overuse of NSAIDs can increase potassium levels by encouraging the kidneys to store it. Once too high, it can cause heart rhythm issues and even cardiac arrest.
In addition, chronic use of ibuprofen can slightly elevate blood pressure. Healthy blood pressure requires the correct balance of electrolytes in the body, including potassium.
Many practitioners warn against the use of ibuprofen after ligament surgery (such as knee or shoulder surgery) and when fractures are healing.
In research, there have been mixed results when studying the effects of ibuprofen on healing in these cases (6, 7). However, it’s still concerning enough for many practitioners to warn against them.
On the other hand, there are natural pain relievers such as ginger and turmeric that have been found to promote healing (8, 9).
Overuse of ibuprofen can also take its toll on the kidneys and liver. Unfortunately, damage to kidney cells can be irreversible and may necessitate dialysis. In fact, long-term use of painkillers like ibuprofen can cause chronic interstitial nephritis — a disease in which the spaces between the kidney tubules become inflamed (10).
In addition, a 2020 study found that even moderate doses of ibuprofen can permanently damage the liver. It may increase levels of H2O2, impair the breakdown of glucose, and synthesis of fatty acids. The increases in hydrogen peroxide may damage liver cells (11).
When used chronically, ibuprofen can cause some dependency. Ironically, you may also experience rebound headaches from a favorite headache medication when it is discontinued.