A study published in the journal the Lancet details an investigation of more than 353,000 patient records undertaken by a team of researchers from the University of Oxford to assess the effects of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. The scientists involved, emphasised that the drugs are only found to be harmful when taken in large doses over an extended period of time, but nonetheless encourage patients to make an informed choice before taking either drug in the future.
The scientists looked at high-dose prescription levels of 150mg of diclofenac or 2400mg of ibuprofen each day. People suffering from severe arthritis often rely on these kinds of doses of anti-inflammatory painkillers to go about daily life. The study showed that for every thousand people taking the painkillers, there would be overall increased stomach bleeding, 3 more heart attacks, 4 more cases of heart failure and one more death per year as a result of taking the drugs over a long period of time.
The scientists stressed that those taking a short course of these drugs or buying them in small doses over the counter should not be concerned. They did warn, however, that the high-dose drugs would pose an even greater health risk to those already at risk of heart problems, such as smokers, those with high cholesterol or the overweight.
There are more than 17 million prescriptions of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in the UK each year. Whilst ibuprofen and diclofenac are by far the most popular choices among patients in the UK, a third drug, naproxen, was found to have lower risks of heart complications, and as a result some doctors are beginning to prescribe this to higher-risk patients. Naproxen works in a similar manner to aspirin, by preventing the clotting of blood; this, however, increases the likelihood of stomach bleeding. Finding effective drugs that relieve pain fast, but which have as few negative side-effects as possible, then, remains an ongoing challenge in the world of medicine.