A new study uncovers a link—but should you really worry?
Chances are, you barely bat an eye before you gulp the pills down: Those non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) drugs are available over the counter, so you don’t have to worry, right?
Actually, NSAIDs may not be as harmless as you think. Taking NSAIDs could increase your risk of a heart attack, a meta-analysis of studies comprising nearly 450,000 people published in the journal BMJ concluded.
For instance, within one week of starting to take ibuprofen (like Advil), the risk of experiencing a heart attack increased by 48 percent, the researchers found. Overall, the risk of heart attack due to any kind of NSAID—including naproxen, or Aleve— increased by 20 to 50 percent.
Prior studies have linked NSAIDs to increased clotting of the blood, which, of course, could cause a blockage that can trigger a heart attack. But there may be something else at play, too, says study author Michèle Bally, Ph.D., of the University of Montreal.
“NSAIDs can cause water and sodium retention,” she says. “Over time, that can cause small changes in your blood pressure. Even increases of as little as 2 to 3 millimeters of mercury (mm HG) over time can be sufficient to trigger a heart attack.”
While the numbers sound scary, it’s important to put them into perspective, says Bally. Your absolute heart attack risk depends on many factors, like family history, blood pressure, cholesterol, and whether you smoke or have diabetes.
So let’s say you have a 1 percent risk of having a heart attack. Using NSAIDs would up your absolute risk of heart attack to 1.2 to 1.5 percent, she says.
Still, that is an increase. So it’s important to talk to your doctor to help you quantify your heart attack risk before starting on NSAIDs, Bally says.
If you do decide to take the meds, stick to the lowest effect dose—the study found that heart attack risk rises at higher dosages. They defined “high doses” of ibuprofen as greater than 1,200 milligrams (mg) a day, and naproxen as greater than 750 mg a day, for instance.