A new study published yesterday in BMJ Open found that common prescription painkillers, including prescription-strength ibuprofen, may increase the risk of atrial fibrillation in older adults. Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heartbeat that can increase the risk the likelihood of heart failure, stroke and shorten life. Over-the-counter NSAIDs, such as Aleve, Advil and Motrin, were not a part of the study.
The study was led by Dr. Bruno Stricker, lead researcher and a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Stricker and his team found that current, chronic NSAID users were 76 percent more likely to develop atrial fibrillation compared to people who had never taken them. Even after taking into account factors such as heart problems, age and sex, the risk remained. The risk rose to 84 percent in people who used the painkillers within the previous month.
The study was correlational, meaning it does not prove a cause and effect. Dr. Bruno, however, believes that the evidence “suggests a cause-effect relationship.” according to HealthDay. The researchers also noted that previous studies have shown that NSAIDs can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Researchers used data from over 8,400 people over the age of 55 living in one area of Rotterdam since 1990. At an average follow-up of nearly 13 years, 857 people in the study had developed atrial fibrillation; 261 of had never used prescription-strength NSAIDs, 554 had taken them in the past and 42 were currently taking the painkillers.
Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a professor of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles and a spokesman for the American Heart Association. Fonarow said that “Use of NSAIDs has been shown to be associated with heart disease, kidney disease and increased risk of heart failure and heart failure hospitalizations,” He told HealthDay that taking an NSAID “in moderation” seems reasonable in people who are not risk for atrial fibrillation and there is no other medical reason to avoid the painkiller
He also said that recent research has linked NSAID use to a higher risk of atrial fibrillation, and this study adds to that link. More research needs to be done to examine the risk of atrial fibrillation related to prescription NSAIDs, said Fonarow.
Stricker says it is not clear how prescription NSAIDs may increase the risk of atrial fibrillation, but he speculates that it might be related to fluid retention, which increases the blood pressure. There is also the possibility that the risk is due to the underlying medical condition; it might be the case that people who need to take prescription NSAIDs already have underlying inflammation, which boosts the risk of atrial fibrillation.