Medical Moment: How common painkillers can prolong your pain

Published: Aug. 17, 2022 at 5:41 PM EDT
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(WNDU) - If you’re one of the millions of Americans who struggle with back pain, you might find yourself grabbing over-the-counter pain medication, like Ibuprofen, for quick relief.

But can commonly used medications actually prolong your pain?

“So about 80 percent of people in their lifetime will experience low back pain,” said Candice Burnette, a pain management physician at Memorial Hermann Surgical Hospital. “Of those people, a good portion will experience that lasts for three months or longer.”

In fact, 16 million Americans have chronic back pain. Many rely on common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications for relief.

Now, a new study suggests those pills may cause the pain to stick around longer researchers say that happens because the drugs temporarily relieve inflammation, but don’t treat the root cause of the back problem.

Plus, the Cleveland Clinic says other recent studies show that daily use of anti-inflammatory can lead to stomach problems, high blood pressure, and kidney damage.

Instead of reaching for back pain pills first, some medical guidelines suggest people start with non-drug treatments like exercise, yoga, physical therapy, heat, or massage.

Pain management specialists say if doctors don’t help patients find relief from back pain things can get worse.

“It’s been linked to depression, sleep problems, anxiety,” Dr. Burnette explained. “So having something that can effectively treat these patients who have been suffering really does improve their quality of life.”

A study conducted by researchers at McGill University in Canada, and scientists from Italy, suggests that blocking inflammation after injury might make that pain chronic.

This research challenges the standard approach to treating pain.

Researchers found that neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that helps the body fight infection and dominates the early stages of inflammation, plays a key role in resolving pain.

“We think that chronic pain develops because of inflammation so we think inflammation is bad and we should stop it. But what this study suggests is that yes, but at the cost of increasing your chances to develop chronic pain,” said Jeffrey Mogil, researcher of the study and professor of psychology at McGill University.

The study was conducted by nearly two dozen researchers who examined pain in three phases, using human blood cells and mice trials.

By comparing blood samples between patients who had their pain resolved and those who didn’t, scientists found that people whose pain went away had experienced a lot of inflammation driven by neutrophils.

Several pain experts that are not affiliated with the study say it suggests a new way to look at how the body heals.

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