Using drugs like ibuprofen and steroids to relieve short-term health problems could increase the chances of developing chronic pain, new research suggests.
The findings from the small study indicate that it could be time to reconsider how pain is treated. Normal recovery from a painful injury involves inflammation – the body’s natural reaction to injury and infection – and new research suggests blocking inflammation with drugs could lead to harder-to-treat issues.
It may be that inflammation has a protective effect, such as preventing acute pain from becoming chronic, and that overly reducing it may be harmful.
Jeffrey Mogil, a professor of pain studies at McGill University in Canada, said: “While ibuprofen was not studied explicitly in either human or mouse data (in the mouse we used diclofenac), as ibuprofen is so common in the UK, it is highly likely that a large percentage of those in the UK Biobank who reported taking ‘NSAIDs’ (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) were in fact taking ibuprofen.’
Researchers said lower-back pain was the most commonly reported form of chronic pain – pain that persists for longer than would be expected after the injury – and resulted in massive economic and medical costs each year.
Now patients receive standard treatments such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs including ibuprofen and corticosteroids. But these drugs are only somewhat effective, and little is known about why acute pain, which begins suddenly in response to something specific, is resolved in some patients but persists as chronic pain in others.
To understand the transition from acute to chronic lower-back pain, the researchers followed 98 patients with acute lower-back pain for three months.
They also examined the mechanisms of pain in both humans and mice, and found that neutrophils – a type of white blood cell that helps the body fight infection – play a key role in resolving pain.
Blocking these cells in mice prolonged the pain for up to 10 times the normal duration.
Treatment with anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids such as dexamethasone and diclofenac also produced the same result, although they were effective against pain early on.
Researchers said the findings were supported by a separate analysis of 500,000 people in the UK Biobank study, which showed that those taking anti-inflammatory drugs were more likely to have pain two to 10 years later. This effect was not seen in people taking paracetamol or antidepressants.
Dr Franziska Denk, senior lecturer at King’s College London, said: “It would now definitely be premature to make any recommendations regarding people’s medication until we have the results of a prospectively designed clinical trial.”
Prof Blair Smith, from the University of Dundee, said: “The theory is that inflammation may have a protective effect in the long term, and that overly reducing inflammation may be harmful.
“However, it is important to note that this is just one study, and more research is needed to confirm and investigate this further.”
The findings are published in Science Translational Medicine.