All pain medications may raise risk of heart attack or stroke

Not long ago, choosing a pain reliever meant finding one that eased your pain without being too hard on the stomach.

Now, research suggests that some commonly used pain medications—not just the now-banned Vioxx—can raise the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. New step-by-step recommendations from the American Heart Association (AHA) can help you choose a pain reliever that's good for both the heart and stomach, reports the June 2007 issue of the Harvard Heart Letter .

The AHA suggests starting with aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to quell muscle or joint pain. Aspirin is good for the heart, and acetaminophen doesn't affect blood clotting. If they don't work, the next step for most people would be a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Try naproxen (Aleve) first, then ibuprofen (Advil). Next is diclofenac, but more caution is needed with this drug (which is available only by prescription). Celebrex, the only drug in the class known as COX-2 inhibitors that remains on the market, should be the last resort for managing pain. In addition to the side effect of increasing the risk of clots in the bloodstream, COX-2 inhibitors can also reduce blood flow through the kidneys and raise blood pressure. For short-term pain in some people, a narcotic pain reliever such as tramadol (Ultram), codeine, or fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic) may be an option.

The Harvard Heart Letter notes that you shouldn't be afraid to take aspirin, Tylenol, Advil, or Aleve for occasional aches and pains. But if you need a pain reliever several times a week, pay closer attention to your choices and talk with your doctor.

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