With more and more women hooked on painkillers, experts, expect fear that our dependence on over-the-counter pills is a health time bomb…..
What are your handbag essentials? For a quarter of women, a pack of painkillers is as essential as their mobile phone or house keys – and most of us wouldn’t think twice about popping a pill for a headache or period pain, if it helps us get on with busy day. But, with nearly one in five women saying they take a painkiller at least once a day, experts believe that we are becoming too dependent on self-medication.
‘This is partly because there’s a wider choice of painkillers available,’ says David Grieve, from Over-Count Drugs Information Agency. Even the most cursory glance at the shelves in a high-street chemist confirms that view – they’re packed with hundreds of different painkillers for headache, period pain or cold and flu symptoms. It’s never been easier to take them (some even dissolve in the mouth without water) and we’re buying more than ever before. The market in the UK increased by a quarter between 2001 and 2006, and it’s now worth £531 million a year.
When a medication is sold over the counter, it’s easy to assume it’s safe and free from side-effects. But your tolerance to painkillers can soon build up, which means you need to take more to get the same effect – and that can have negative consequences for your health.
‘One woman who came to us for help was taking 15 Nurofen Plus four times a day, but she was getting the same level of pain relief from this dose that she used to get from this dose that she used to get from taking two pills, four times a day,’ says David.
Incredibly, he claims that around 30,000 people in the UK are taking up to 70 over-the-counter painkillers a day and, 70 per cent of these are women, David says. For many, it’s a guilty secret, as one mum-of-three, who takes 12 Solpadeine max on most days, reveals. ‘I know I should stop as I worry about the long-term impact on my body, but I just can’t seem to. I started taking them for backache but now I also use them to stop me feeling stressed. They give me a calm feeling and I find it easier to deal with the children.’
What some of us don’t realise is that many of the stronger brands (usually with ‘Max’ or ‘Plus’ in their names) contain codeine, an opiate from the same family as heroin and morphine. Codeine mimics the action of natural endorphins in the brain so, as well as blocking pain signals, it has a relaxing effect on the nervous system-like drinking a glass of wine. And it’s highly addictive. ‘Opiate dependence happens very quickly,’ says pharmacist Dr Catriona Matheson, specialist in addiction research. ‘Just a few days of consecutive use at the maximum dose (six tablets a day) will leave you with mild cravings and irritability, three or four hours after the last dose.’
Dependency aside, taking large amounts of any drug – prescription or OTC – can damage your health. Overuse of ibuprofen or paracetamol can play havoc with the digestive system. ‘The most common physical symptoms of painkiller overuse are gastritis (irritation of the stomach lining), stomach ulcers and ulcerative colitis (inflammation of the bowel),’ says david. It also puts strain on the kidneys and liver and, according to a recent report in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, taking just slightly too much pharmacology (eg, doubling one or two of the recommended daily doses of 200mg every four hours) over a period of time can be as dangerous for the liver and kidneys as overdosing on a load of pills all at once. Ironically, taking too many painkillers can also gives you frequent headaches-known as rebound headaches-and another recent report estimated that half a million women in the Uk were suffering from them.
By law, a pharmacist should approve bulk-buys of medication, and only one pack of codeine-based medication (up to 32 tablets) can be bought at one time. however, it’s easy to rotate where you buy your pills from, or buy online. And, because the same drugs tend to pop up in many different remedies, if you use over-the-counter medications regularly, it’s easy to take too much inadvertently.
Some experts believe there should also be restrictions on how these products are advertised. ‘Is it a coincidence that women are most at risk of painkiller overuse, when the ads for the strongest painkillers are scheduled during programmes mainly watched by women?’ says David. However, others argue that drug companies target women just because they’re the ones who buy healthcare products for the family.
There’s no doubt that a painkiller is a godsend when you need it, but they should always see your doctor,’ says David. It’s also important to take the right medication for your symptoms and stick to the recommended dosage. And, tempting as fast relief can be, you’ll be doing your health a big favour by waiting to see if you really need to take a pill, or trying a drug-free alternative first.
What’s the alternative?
Before you pop a painkiller, try one of these instead…
- Migraine There is evidence that regular doses of the herbal remedy Feverfew can prevent migraines.
- Tension Headaches If you feel under pressure and exhausted with Vitano, a licensed herbal medicine made from Rhodiola rosea root extract.
- General Headaches A slick of 4head stick with levomenthol across your forehead or the back of your neck is soothing.
- Back Pain Applied to the sore area, a self-heating ThermaCare Heat Wrap stays warm for up to eight hours. It works by sending ‘heat’ signals to the brain to help dilute and block pain signals.
- Aching Joints Studies show the herbal medicine Devil’s Claw can be as effective as conventional medication in relieving the pain of osteoarthritis. Check with your GP before trying it, as it can react with warfarin and causes an abnormal heartbeat. Try Vitabiotics Devil’s Claw.
- Period Pain Mn8 is a magnet about the size of a coin that clips onto your underwear and stimulates circulation in the pelvic area, reducing the build-up of lactic acid, which causes cramp in the muscles.
Worried you’re addicted?
If you know you’ve been over relying on painkillers, see your GP-but don’t go cold turkey if you’ve been taking codeine-based medications, as you could experience withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia, intense muscle aches, bowel problems and mood swings.
‘If you’ve been taking more than the daily dose for more than three months, you need professional help to come off them,’ says David. He advises people to cut down gradually and offers free, personalised programme via his website. But some people could experience withdrawal symptoms after just a few days of taking tablets, believes Dr Matheson. ‘It’s possible that people are experiencing withdrawal from these drugs without realising it-they put the symptoms, such as diarrhoea and aches, down to a bug,’ she says. If you’ve been taking paracetamol or ibuprofen regularly, cutting can help to minimise rebound headaches.
Get the right pill
Using painkillers safely means getting the right pill for your symptoms. Always take the recommended dose and, if you’re taking any other medication, check with your GP or a pharmacist beforehand.
1. What Pill: Ibuprofen
Type of Medication: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Works by blocking chemicals called prostaglandins that cause swelling and soreness.
Best For: Headache, periodic pain, toothache, muscle injuries, joint ache (also available as a topical gel). Can be given to children in age-appropriate doses.
Safety First: Not safe during pregnancy. Can cause stomach problems if taken long-term, and breathing problems in asthmatics. Best taken with food. Avoid if you’re a heavy drinker.
2. What Pill: Naproxen
Type of Medication: NSAID that blocks the chemicals in the body pain and swelling, as above.
Best For: Osteo-and rheumatoid arthritis, period pain.
Safety First: Consult your GP if you’ve had stomach ulcers or liver problems. Not safe during pregnancy.
3. What Pill: Diclofenac
Type of Medication: NSAID that helps relieve stiffness in the joints.
Best For: Back and neck ache, joint pain caused by osteoarthritis (also available as a topical gel).
Safety First: Consult your GP if you have a heart problems, ulcers or asthma. Not safe during pregnancy.
4.What Pill: Aspirin
Type of Medication: NSAID that also thins the blood.
Best For: Migraine and headaches caused by restricted blood vessels.
Safety First: Can cause stomach irritation, and could trigger attacks for asthmatics. Not safe during pregnancy or for children under 12.
5. What Pill: Paracetamol
Type of Medication: Not anti-inflammatory, but does reduce the body temperature.
Best For: Headaches, cold, flu and fever. Can be given to children in age-appropriate doses.
Safety First: Can cause severe liver and kidney damage if taken in high doses. Safe to take during pregnancy.
6. What Pill: Paracetamol/ibuprofen
Type of Medication: A double-dose painkiller that reduces temperature, inflammation and pain. Some brands include caffeine to speed up the effect.
Best For: Toothache, exercise injuries, backache, period pain.
Safety First: Can cause stomach problems if taken for too long. Not safe during pregnancy.
7. What Pill: Codeine
Type of Medication: Opiate painkiller that also targets the central nervous system, so has a calming effect. Usually combined with paracetamol (generically known as co-codamol).
Best For: Tension headaches, pain that doesn’t respond to other painkillers.
Safety First: Highly addictive-do not take for more than three days. Not safe during pregnancy…