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Painkillers Linked to High Blood Pressure

Tylenol and ibuprofen drugs may boost hypertension in women

MONDAY, Oct. 28, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- New research suggests that young and middle-aged women who take painkillers such as Tylenol, Motrin and Advil may be setting themselves up for significantly higher blood pressure even if they don't already suffer from hypertension.

"Lots of people believe that these medications are completely safe because they're available over the counter," says study co-author Dr. Gary C. Curhan, an epidemiologist at Harvard School of Public Health. "But we know that (they) can have multiple other effects. This would be one more thing that people should consider if they use these medications on a regular basis."

There are three main types of over-the-counter painkillers -- aspirin, acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) -- which include ibuprofen-based medications such as Advil and Motrin. Researchers have linked NSAIDs to high blood pressure, but previous studies only looked at people who already suffered from the condition, which is also known as hypertension, Curhan says.

In the new study, Curhan and his colleagues examined an ongoing study of nurses who have been followed since 1989. The researchers found 80,020 women, aged 31 to 50, who had no history of hypertension and studied their answers to a 1995 survey about their use of painkillers.

The findings appear in today's issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

About half the women took aspirin at least one day a month, and between 72 and 77 percent took NSAIDs or acetaminophen.

When various risk factors were taken into account, those who took acetaminophen at least 22 days month had twice the risk of developing hypertension compared to those who took no drugs from that class. Those who took NSAIDs had an 86 percent higher risk.

"I consider that pretty substantial," Curhan says.

Meanwhile, those who took aspirin were at no higher risk.

NSAIDs and acetaminophen may interfere with the ability of blood vessels to remain dilated, Curhan explains: "If the blood vessels constrict, then the blood pressure can go up."

Some experts liken blood vessels to a garden hose. If you squeeze the hose, the pressure inside will build.

There's another potential problem, Curhan adds. "It can cause the body to retain sodium, and that can raise blood pressure."

Curhan said the study results still need to be confirmed by further research, which may shed light on how long it takes for painkiller use to affect blood pressure. "Nobody's done a study like this before," he says.

For now, women who take the painkillers should consider all the risks, Curhan says. "My hope is that they're not taking them for (the wrong) reasons. Lots of people take these for a variety of reasons, many of which don't have anything to do with what they're designed to do."

Moderate use of painkillers should still be all right, says Dr. Eric Eichhorn, medical director of the Cardiopulmonary Research Science and Technology Institute in Dallas. "When used appropriately, they serve a very important function. My guess is that it's a continuum. If you take painkillers for a day or two, that's probably fine. But if you take them all the time every day of the month, your chances of hypertension increase."

Eichhorn adds the design of the study doesn't account for other factors that could affect blood pressure in the women. "It's guilt by association," he says. "There are a whole lot of other factors that could be responsible."

What To Do

For an explanation of how NSAIDs and analgesics work, try Pharmacology Central. Learn more about NSAIDs from Medinfo.

SOURCES: Gary C. Curhan, M.D., Sc.D., epidemiologist, Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; Eric Eichhorn, M.D., medical director, Cardiopulmonary Research Science and Technology Institute, Dallas; Oct. 28, 2002, Archives of Internal Medicine
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