The only other medication she was taking was daily low-dose aspirin, 325 mg per day; because someone had told her that taking an aspirin per day would be good for her heart, even though she did not have any risk factors for heart disease. The source of the vomiting turned out to be a bleeding stomach ulcer caused by unintentionally overdosing on naproxen plus aspirin. Interestingly, prior to coming in to the emergency department, she denied abdominal pain or discomfort.
This patient is one of the 100 million Americans whose life is affected by chronic pain. That’s more than the number of people with diabetes, coronary artery disease and cancer — combined. September is Pain Awareness Month, an ideal time to alert those who suffer from chronic pain that, although your pain is personal and no one understands your pain like you do, it is important to take the time to read and understand the Drug Facts Label on all your medicines. This even goes for the pain relief products you buy over-the-counter (OTC).
To help patients safely and smartly manage pain, a national education campaign from the American Gastroenterological Association, Gut Check: Know Your Medicine provides information and tips on ways to properly use common medicines that are most likely found in everyone’s medicine cabinet.
In my practice, I see chronic pain patients who develop medicine-related complications due to unintentional overuse or overdose of their pain medicine, causing sometimes serious damage to their digestive tract. They are often unaware that some side effects could even be fatal. It’s not uncommon for patients to tell me they believe taking more medication will speed pain relief, but it doesn’t work that way. This type of thinking — that taking more of a pain reliever, taking it too often or doubling up on active ingredients in pain medicines — is what puts people at risk.
Managing pain safely can be confusing for a good reason. Acetaminophen is found in more than 500 OTC and prescription medicines (including Tylenol®, Percocet® and Nyquil®) and NSAIDs are in more than 550 medicines (including Aspirin®, Motrin® and Aleve®). I encourage everyone who suffers from pain, or is caring for someone with pain — whether minor or chronic — to know the active ingredients in each pain reliever they use and take only the recommended dose.
Overuse and overdose of pain medicines — both over-the-counter or prescription — is not a new phenomenon, but is a health issue that requires attention because so many of these cases are preventable. The next time you reach for the medicine cabinet, remember these three steps:
- Read and follow all medicine labels.
- Take only one product at a time containing the same active ingredient.
- Talk to your health-care provider if you have questions.
As we recognize Pain Awareness Month and the millions of personal pain stories, I hope you will take a minute to learn ways to practice smart, safe pain management. I want all of my patients to be comfortable and enjoy life, and to do what is needed to better control their pain, safely and effectively.
Dr. Byron Cryer is from Dallas, Texas and is chair of the Gut Check: Know Your Medicine campaign and councilor-at-large for the American Gastroenterological Association.