OTC Painkillers Including Ibuprofen May Worsen Inflammation, New Study Shows

These meds could have the opposite of their intended effect.

At the first sign of pain, most of us don't think twice about cracking open a bottle of ibuprofen, or a similar over-the-counter (OTC) medicine. After all, they're commonly referred to as painkillers—as in, they are meant to relieve a variety of aches and pains including "headaches, sore muscles, [and] arthritis," per the National Institute of Health (NIH).

However, you might want to reconsider reaching for these meds. A new study says that OTC painkillers—including ibuprofen—may actually worsen inflammation. Read on to find out more.

READ THIS NEXT: This Is What Happens When You Take Ibuprofen 30 Days in a Row, According to Doctors.

OTC pain medication is commonly used in the U.S.

Close up showing a woman's hand, ready to take medicine with a glass of water, having taken the pills out of the blister pack.

When it comes to pain, most people are used to getting relief from OTC meds—and they don't always wait until they're actually experiencing discomfort. In a 2022 survey of 2,000 U.S. adults conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Chirp, a company that manufacturers devices for back pain relief, 42 percent of respondents said they use OTC meds to try to avoid pain altogether. And when they are in pain, 34 percent of respondents reach for OTC medication.

Many of them reported taking OTC medications regularly, as well. Twenty percent of respondents said they take pain relievers at least once a day, and 12 percent admitted to taking them "a few times a day." But now, new research is shining a light on how this practice could be problematic.

A new study found that painkillers may worsen inflammation.

Mature adult man in cozy interior of home kitchen

A study presented at the 2022 Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) conference in November found that taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen for osteoarthritis may worsen inflammation in certain cases.

The study looked at 277 participants from the Osteoarthritis Initiative cohort with moderate to severe osteoarthritis of the knee who used NSAID treatment for at least one year, a press release explained.

For these patients, researchers looked at the link between the use of NSAIDs and synovitis, which is "the inflammation of the membrane lining the joint," Johanna Luitjens, MD, the study's lead author and a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a statement. But the findings weren't exactly promising.

"In this study, no structural long-term benefit of NSAID use in patients with [osteoarthritis] could be found," the researchers concluded. "Furthermore, users showed more synovitis at baseline and change over four years, which may lead to an increase in pain and a decrease in joint function."

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Taking these drugs could actually worsen pain over time.

One man, worried senior man, sitting alone at his home. He has a pain in his knee.

Osteoarthritis is the "most common form of arthritis" and is sometimes referred to as "degenerative joint disease," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency estimates that this condition affects more than 32.5 million adults in the U.S. But despite being so common, there is "no cure for this disease process," Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, a medical toxicology physician and co-medical director of the National Capital Poison Center, tells Best Life.

"Treatments are limited to pain control and maintenance of joint function and stability," Johnson-Arbor explains. "NSAIDs are often used to reduce the pain and acute inflammation of arthritis."

But over time, the study says these meds might have the opposite effect, says Leann Poston, MD, a licensed physician and medical expert for Invigor Medical. "This suggests that NSAIDS may not reduce the structural changes found in the knee joint due to osteoarthritis and may actually lead to more pain and a decrease in joint function," Poston explains. This is due to the potential for increase inflammation. "Inflammation typically causes pain because the swelling and buildup of tissue starts pressing against nerve endings. This pressure sends pain signals to the brain, causing discomfort," according to Garden State Pain and Orthopedics.

Experts say people with osteoarthritis should discuss the use of pain relievers with their doctor.

Shot of a handsome young male physiotherapist doing a consultation and assessment with a female patient.

Luitjens said the study was "able to show that there were no protective mechanisms from NSAIDs in reducing inflammation or slowing down progression of osteoarthritis of the knee joint." This indicates that the use of these pain relievers for treatment in these patients "should be revisited," the lead researcher concluded.

But Poston, who was not involved in the study, cautioned against drawing any conclusions without more research. "This was a small study, and randomized controlled trials are needed to better advise patients about whether NSAIDs are a benefit or harmful in their case," she says.

Speak with your doctor about the best way to treat your pain.

woman choosing otc meds at drugstore

Naheed Ali, PhD, a doctor of internal medicine and physician writer at Medical Copywriting Services, recommends talking with your doctor about whether or not you should take ibuprofen or other OTC NSAIDs long-term for pain. "This is because long-term use of NSAIDs, including ibuprofen, may be associated with certain risks and side effects," Ali said. "The doctor may recommend alternative treatment options or may suggest taking NSAIDs on a more short-term basis. The best NSAID treatment approach will depend on the individual's specific needs and medical history."

Short-term use of painkillers for knee pain might be best, based on the results of study, according to Johnson-Arbor. "Long-term use of NSAID drugs can help mask the pain of osteoarthritis, temporarily allowing people with the condition to be more active. This may, in turn, cause more wear and tear on the joints, which may actually worsen the underlying condition," the medical toxicologist explains.

Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.

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