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Prescription Ibuprofen, Other Painkillers Linked to Increased Risk of Irregular Heartbeat (Atrial Fibrillation)

Apr 10, 2014

A new long-term study suggest that common prescription pain medications, including prescription-strength ibuprofen, may increase the risk of developing an irregular heartbeat in older adults. The condition, called atrial fibrillation, can increase the risk of heart failure, stroke and shorten life. The study was published online yesterday in BMJ Open.

The study only shows a correlation, or an association, between the prescription painkillers (known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs). However, Dr. Bruno Stricker, lead researcher and a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, believes that the link "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.

Stricker’s team analyzed data from over 8,400 people. The study has tracked the health of 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 which had never used prescription-strength NSAIDs; 554 had taken them in the past and 42 were currently taking the painkillers.

Researchers 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, this risk remained. The risk was even higher for people who used the painkillers within the previous month, at 84 percent.

Over-the-counter NSAIDs, such as Aleve, Advil and Motrin, were not a part of the study.

Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a professor of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles and a spokesman for the American Heart Association, said that more research needs to be done to evaluate the risk.

Fonarow pointed out 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 also said that recent research has linked NSAID use to a higher risk of atrial fibrillation, and this study adds to that link.

Fonarow says that using 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.

According to Stricker, 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. Additionally, there is a 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.

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