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Should I use painkillers or anti-inflammatories?

Do you really need these?

NSAID’s : Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

The most common example is: Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, etc.).

Should you take them?

If you pay attention to all the talk in the fitness and health media about inflammation (which gets an unnecessarily bad name), you might be convinced you need to take Ibuprofen every day! In fact, in the marathon running world, some people call it “vitamin I”.

Turns out, these pills are probably being over-used. So when should you use them?

As always, before acting on any of this information, read the site disclaimer. There, now that my butt is covered, here’s the info you’re looking for!

Why take them?

They definitely do work. They are effective anti-inflammatory drugs, and they do reduce pain after exercise 1 or after injury.

When you exercise exceptionally hard you’re going to get sore. You know this if you ever had a workout after a long time off, or did something extreme like a marathon. Muscle soreness comes with the territory. Perhaps we should learn to live with it, or try something else (see: Muscle Soreness) to remedy the situation. Here’s why:

So why not take them?

A lot of people use them without really understanding why they should, or shouldn’t. 2 Time for some education:

  • They are not good at ‘preventing’ soreness.

People think that taking it before a big race or competition might prevent them from getting sore. Unfortunately, after such an extreme effort, it seems that these drugs don’t even help with soreness, and might even cause increased inflammation and ‘endotoxemia’. 3

  • They can be dangerous 4

NSAID use is associated with elevated risk of adverse effects on the cardiovascular and gastrointestinal system. 5, 14, 15 Basically, they could be bad for your guts, and your heart and circulatory system.

  • They can decrease gains from exercise

Correct, they can actually decrease your results from exercise! If taken before exercise training, anti-inflammatories can decrease your body’s adaptational response to exercise. 6, 7, 8

  • Too much, too long can delay injury healing

Prolonged use (keyword here: prolonged) can delay the healing of things like bone fractures, 9 rotator cuff tears, 10 knee tendon injuries, 11 muscle strains, 12 and ligament injuries. 13 So, basically, everything.

This makes sense when you think about what inflammation is actually for: it’s your body’s initiation of the whole healing process. Like a call to arms to start fighting the problem. If you take something that decreases inflammation when it’s normal, you are probably just slowing down your natural healing process.


When should you take them?

When an injury first happens, inflammation may get a little out of hand (or so the thinking goes – I’m not sure I believe this anymore). Taking NSAID’s like Ibuprofen after an injury has happened can actually decrease pain and restore function faster during the acute phase (the first week). However, don’t confuse this with faster healing – recovery and healing are not the same thing.

Therefore, NSAID’s usually go well with the PRICE method for acute injuries, helping you get moving earlier, and ultimately returning to sport sooner. Read the bottle, and take the smallest dose for the shortest duration. Remember: inflammation is not the enemy.

If things are not going well after 7 days, stop taking the medications and go to your doctor!

When should you not take them?

They should not be taken as a preventative measure for reducing injuries (that doesn’t even make sense).

They should not be taken as a preventative measure against getting muscle soreness (it doesn’t work).

They should not be used differently than the bottle or your physician recommends – read the instructions.

That’s it! Hope you found this information useful.

Good luck!

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    2 Responses to Should I use painkillers or anti-inflammatories?

    1. MrFitness says:

      Hi Tony, nice post.
      One question that comes to my mind. Say you have a big workout and the next morning you realize it was a bit too big. You feel dragged not just physically but mentally as well.
      Could a NSAID give some releif? I dont mean as chronic therapy. More like a emergency intervention.

      keep up the good work ;)

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Hey MrFitness,

        Thanks for the comments! I think NSAIDs would work in that situation, at least for pain. Not sure about that mental drag. Personally, I’d just recommend that person take a day off training, eat and sleep well. Probably no need for medications, unless the pain is very severe.



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