Painkillers May Pose Risks to Heart Attack Survivors

Reported by Dr. Maxie Kruger, ABC News Medical Unit:

A group of commonly used painkillers may increase the risk that first-time heart attack survivors will die sooner or have another heart attack, a new study released Monday suggests.

The study does not represent the first time doctors have warned that certain pain medicines may hold risks for heart attack survivors. In 2007 the American Heart Association released recommendations for these patients and their doctors to balance risk factors and benefits when choosing a painkiller.

When it comes to these drugs, there is a wide variety on the market. Among the choices is a group of very popular and widely used drugs called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs for short. Some of them are easily available over the counter, like ibuprofen. Others, such as celecoxib - commonly known by the brand name Celebrex - require prescriptions.

The new Danish study, published in the Journal Circulation, looked at the consequences of painkillers in almost 100,000 patients. Of this number, nearly 44,000 filled at least one prescription for painkillers.

Those who took painkillers had a 59 percent higher risk of dying after one year and a 63 percent higher risk of dying after five years. Moreover, these patients' risk of experiencing another heart attack or dying from coronary artery disease was 30 percent higher after one year and 41 percent higher after five years.

This is pretty bad news. Painkillers are not only widely used, they are also readily available.

"It is important to get the message out to clinicians taking care of patients with cardiovascular disease that NSAIDs are harmful, even several years after a heart attack," said Dr. Anne-Marie Olsen, lead author of the study and a fellow in the cardiology department at Copenhagen University Hospital Gentofte in Denmark.

Still, patients have to manage pain - and doctors say this study suggests that heart attack survivors and their doctors should be picky when choosing a painkiller. Alternatively, treatment of pain may also include no medications at all; some other pain relief options include physical therapy or heat and cold. But if these non-medical options don't cut it, physicians say, the risk profiles of some painkillers should be taken into consideration.

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