Painkiller used for arthritis linked to heart attacks

A popular painkiller used by almost one million Irish arthritis sufferers to fight their condition has been linked to 915 deadly heart attacks in this country.

The claim has been made by a major new Oxford University study into the hidden side effects of the vital drug.

The “unprecedented” research, published in the latest edition of medical journal the Lancet, said long-term use of the Ibuprofen and Diclofenac drugs increases the chance of the life-threatening side effects by as much as 40%.

In real terms, the study said this means out of every 1,000 patients on long-term doses, three will suffer heart attacks — with one of these proving fatal.

The finding is focused specifically on the impact of high, long-term doses given to people with arthritis, which are regularly twice as strong as over-the-counter Ibuprofen measures provided to the general public by pharmacies.

However, as at least 915,000 people in this country suffer from the condition, it has effectively given Irish patients a drastic choice — fight crippling arthritis without painkillers, or live with the real risk of potentially fatal heart attacks and stroke.

The groundbreaking study is based on the experiences of 350,000 arthritis sufferers in Britain.

Funded by the British Heart Foundation and the British Medical Research Council, it said that in normal doses non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are generally harmless.

However, as arthritis sufferers must cope with a far higher and longer-term degree of pain, the levels of the painkiller needed will result in a 40% increased chance of heart failure.

“The research shows that, when used in high doses, Diclofenac and Ibuprofen increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, on average causing about three extra heart attacks a year in every 1,000 patients treated — one of which would be fatal,” lead author of the Oxford study, Prof Colin Baigent, explained.

The expert added that, while the finding is startling, as the drugs “make the difference between being able to go about their daily life or not”, arthritis sufferers are being left with a drastic choice.

Responding to the situation, an Arthritis Ireland spokesperson said the findings “are concerning”, but insisted those suffering from the condition “speak to their doctor” before changing medications.

“Unfortunately living with arthritis means a heightened risk of other associated conditions, including those that affect the heart,” he said.

The Oxford research noted that similar concerns were also raised about another arthritis medication — Vioxx — more than a decade ago.

* Further information is available on the Arthritis Ireland help-line, lo-call 1890-252-846.

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