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Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
June 2, 2024 ·  3 min read

Side Effects of Popular Medicines Discovered: Anti-Inflammatory Drugs Could Cause Chronic Pain

When you’ve got a nagging headache or your neck hurts after a wonky night’s sleep, what’s the first thing you do? For many of us, it’s to go to the medicine cabinet for something such as an ibuprofen. Unfortunately, this might not be our best choice. Anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids, commonly used to alleviate pain, could actually increase the chances of developing chronic pain, according to research from McGill University and colleagues in Italy. This discovery puts into question traditional medical practices used to treat pain.

Anti-inflammatory Drugs Could Cause Chronic Pain

Ibuprofen is a medication in the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug class that is used for treating pain, fever, and inflammation. This includes painful menstrual periods, and migraines.
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The research, published in Science Translational Medicine, suggests that normal recovery from a painful injury involves inflammation, and blocking that inflammation with drugs could lead to harder-to-treat pain. The study examined the mechanisms of pain in both humans and mice, revealing that neutrophils – a type of white blood cell that helps the body fight infection – play a key role in resolving pain. (1)

“For many decades it’s been standard medical practice to treat pain with anti-inflammatory drugs. But we found that this short-term fix could lead to longer-term problems,” says Jeffrey Mogil, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at McGill University and E. P. Taylor Chair in Pain Studies. (2)

Read More: 7 Surprising Side Effects of Cannabis After 50

The Findings

Lower back pain. Man holding his back in pain. Medical concept.
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The active changes in genes over time in individuals whose pain went away were analyzed in the study, focusing on people with lower back pain. The changes in their blood cells and their activity seemed to be the most important factor, especially in cells called neutrophils. Neutrophils dominate the early stages of inflammation and set the stage for repair of tissue damage, suggesting that inflammation plays a key role in resolving pain.

Blocking neutrophils in mice experimentally prolonged the pain up to ten times the normal duration. Treating the pain with anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids like dexamethasone and diclofenac also produced the same result, although they were effective against pain early on. These findings are supported by a separate analysis of 500,000 people in the United Kingdom that showed those taking anti-inflammatory drugs to treat their pain were more likely to have pain two to ten years later, an effect not seen in people taking acetaminophen or antidepressants.

Read More: Side Effects of Common Medications Are Being Mistaken for ‘Old Age’

The Implications  

Mature woman in glasses hold bottle with pills read medicine instruction on packaging before take meds, senior female retiree in spectacles thinking of medication treatment, elderly healthcare concept
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This research suggests that it may be time to reconsider the way we treat acute pain. Pain can be resolved in other ways that don’t involve interfering with inflammation. Pain resolution is actually an active biological process, according to Professor Diatchenko. These findings should be followed up by clinical trials directly comparing anti-inflammatory drugs to other painkillers that relieve pain but don’t disrupt inflammation.

“Our findings suggest it may be time to reconsider the way we treat acute pain. Luckily pain can be killed in other ways that don’t involve interfering with inflammation,” says Massimo Allegri, a Physician at the Policlinico of Monza Hospital in Italy and Ensemble Hospitalier de la Cote in Switzerland.

Professor Mogil, who is a member of the Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain, raises concerns about the conventional practice of treating pain with anti-inflammatory drugs. “For many decades it’s been standard medical practice to treat pain with anti-inflammatory drugs. But we found that this short-term fix could lead to longer-term problems,” he says.

While pain is a common issue, the research conducted by the team highlights the potential long-term implications of traditional treatment methods. As the medical community continues to explore alternative pain relief treatments, it is important to keep in mind the potential side effects of current practices. This could lead to the development of new and more effective methods of treating pain that do not have such long-term implications.

The Bottom Line

Blue Capsules are Moving on Conveyor at Modern Pharmaceutical Factory. Tablet and Capsule Manufacturing Process. Close-up Shot of Medical Drug Production Line.
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While anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids may provide short-term pain relief, they could lead to the development of chronic pain in the long term. This discovery highlights the need to reconsider the use of traditional pain management techniques in the medical field.

Read More: 6 Common Medications That Can Cause Permanent Side Effects in Children


  1. Acute inflammatory response via neutrophil activation protects against the development of chronic pain.” Science. Marc Parisien, et al. May 11, 2022.
  2. Discovery reveals blocking inflammation may lead to chronic pain.” McGill. May 11, 2022.