(Isabelle Z.) When you’re in a lot of pain, your first instinct is often to do whatever is necessary to make it go away. You might normally prefer natural treatments, but when a throbbing headache or excruciating backache sets in, you can’t reach for that pill bottle fast enough. Unfortunately, however, painkillers of all varieties – including the seemingly-harmless over-the-counter varieties – do more harm than good. In fact, once you learn more about the damage they can cause, that pain you’re having might not seem so bad after all.
The dangers of prescription opioids are in the headlines on a daily basis, with 44 people dying each day in the U.S. from these toxic medications. Even those who don’t have a fatal overdose experience side effects such as nausea, constipation, vomiting, dizziness, sedation, and respiratory depression. Physical dependence can set in quickly, and when prescriptions run out, some people are already so addicted that they turn to street opioids like heroin to get their fix.
In many cases, opioid painkillers are being prescribed carelessly – and without just cause. Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of the opioid problem is the fact that studies have shown that they work no better than non-opioids in treating certain types of pain, such as leg or arm pain due to sprains, fractures, and dislocated shoulders. While non-opioids do have their own set of side effects, they don’t destroy lives and kill people at anywhere near the level that opioids do. Unfortunately, many patients and doctors alike are under the false impression that stronger pills are always better when it comes to addressing pain.
OTC painkillers more dangerous than many people believe
While over-the-counter options aren’t generally addictive, they don’t fare much better than opioids in the side effect and efficacy department. Non-narcotic meds like acetaminophen are very dangerous for your liver. In fact, the Canadian government recently required them to place stronger warnings on their packaging as many people are under the mistaken belief that painkillers sold on store shelves simply aren’t that damaging. The active ingredient in Tylenol, acetaminophen, is very toxic to the liver, and overdosing on it is the top reason behind acute liver failure in the U.S. and a major reason many people need a liver transplant. It also impacts your brain’s processing abilities, dulling your emotions and reducing your ability to spot mistakes.
It builds up in your liver over time, causing drug-induced hepatitis, and its effects are amplified if you drink a lot of alcohol. Making matters worse is the fact that it’s often included in other OTC drugs like cold medicines, so people can inadvertently take too much at once.
NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen increase your risk of suffering a stroke or heart attack. They can also raise your blood pressure and lead to heart failure. Ibuprofen has been linked to male fertility and testicular health issues, with even small amounts resulting in muscle loss, depression and decreased libido, putting men on the path to erectile dysfunction.
Aspirin isn’t much better. Long perceived by many as the most harmless pain pill there is – a misconception that was likely helped along by some misguided recommendations to take a baby aspirin a day for heart health– it increases your risk of serious problems like internal stomach bleeding as well as bleeding in the brain. It’s so bad that the FDA required a new warning statement to be placed on it in 2014 so people know what can happen if they take it.
With so many potential negative effects, it’s a wonder that anyone ever takes these drugs at all – especially when you consider the many safer and more effective alternatives that are available. It may take some trial and error to find what works best for your situation, but many people have successfully tackled pain using acupuncture, yoga, meditation, massage and natural medicine.
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