Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)
What are NSAIDs?
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, are common medicines used to treat the symptoms of arthritis. The name means they reduce pain and stiffness due to inflammation of the joints, without using steroids. You can find out about steroids from the separate ARA information sheet on corticosteroids.
There are many different NSAIDs. Some can be bought over the counter at your local pharmacy or supermarket e.g. ibuprofen (Nurofen), whilst others require a prescription. The brand name of your NSAID will have the generic name next to it on the packet or bottle. See below for further examples.
How do they work?
NSAIDs stop cells making prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are chemicals released by injured cells. They cause inflammation and swelling and they sensitise nerve endings, which can lead to pain. If you make less prostaglandin, you have less inflammation and less pain. By stopping cells making prostaglandins, NSAIDs relieve the symptoms of arthritis. They do not stop the inflammation occurring in the future or prevent the disease progressing to joint damage.
What benefit can you expect from your treatment?
NSAIDs provide relief from pain and stiffness. They work quickly, usually within a few hours. The maximum benefit can take 2 to 4 weeks or sometimes longer. You may need to try two or three different NSAIDs to find one that suits you best.
How are NSAIDs taken?
NSAIDs are usually taken by mouth in tablet or capsule form. They are also available as liquids, injections, creams, sprays and suppositories.
Side effects may occur with any method of administration, even when NSAIDs are applied to the skin (see Side effects).
When should NSAIDs be taken?
NSAIDS can be taken when needed to treat short term symptoms. They can also be taken regularly to manage persistent pain and stiffness.
While NSAIDs may be more effective if taken regularly, the possible side effects are less if they are only taken when needed, for example before exercise.
How often you take a NSAID also depends on the one you are prescribed. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you are uncertain about how often to take your medicine.
Tablets and capsules should be taken with food to reduce possible side effects.
What is the dosage?
NSAIDs come in different strengths. Treatment usually starts with a low dose.
Your doctor will adjust the dose depending on the type of NSAID, the condition for which it is being used and whether or not your symptoms are relieved.
To minimise side effects, the lowest dose that controls symptoms is usually recommended.
Can other medicines be taken with NSAIDs?
To minimise side effects, sometimes a medicine to protect the stomach may be given (see below: Are there any side effects?).
NSAIDs may be used with other arthritis medicines including:
Corticosteroids are not generally used with NSAIDs as the risk of side effects such as stomach irritation or ulcers are increased.
You should not take more than one NSAID at the same time, including those bought without a prescription (except for low-dose aspirin).
Are there any side effects?
You might experience side effects with your treatment. Tell your doctor if you notice side effects that you think are caused by this medicine.
Most common possible side effects:
- The most common side effects are gastrointestinal and may include nausea (feeling sick), vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, heartburn and stomach pain or cramps.
- Other common side effects of NSAIDs include dizziness, lightheadedness, tiredness, headache, ringing in the ears (tinnitis) and increased blood pressure (see Precautions).
- NSAIDs can make heart failure or kidney failure worse. Fluid retention can lead to weight gain or swelling of ankles or legs. Kidney failure is more likely if you are also taking fluid tablets and certain blood pressure tablets (see Precautions).
- Stomach or duodenal ulcers: If you develop severe stomach pains, pass blood or black stools, or vomit blood, stop taking the medicine immediately. You should see your doctor as soon as possible or go to the nearest emergency department.
The risk of ulcers is higher if:
– you are older than 65 years
– you have had a previous stomach or duodenal ulcer
– you are also taking warfarin or other blood thinners, corticosteroid tablets or low-dose aspirin (used by many people to help prevent a heart attack or stroke).
Your doctor may advise that you take an anti-ulcer medicine to help reduce the risk of getting a stomach or duodenal ulcer.
• Bleeding more easily than usual is often noticed.
• Shortness of breath may occur in some people with asthma (see Precautions).
Cardiovascular (CV) risk
The benefits of NSAIDs outweigh the known risks for most people. However there is a small but significant increased risk of CV adverse effects (such as heart attack, angina or stroke) with both selective and nonselective NSAIDs. The risk is lower with smaller doses of NSAIDs used for shorter periods of time. The risk is higher in those with other CV risk factors such as a previous CV event (e.g. a heart attack), smoking, obesity, high cholesterol or diabetes.
Due to these potential adverse effects, any NSAID should be used in the minimum effective dose and for the shortest possible time.
If you have any questions or concerns about the risks of CV events, discuss the benefits and risks with your GP or rheumatologist.
What precautions are necessary?
Cardiovascular (CV) risk
- The benefits of NSAIDs outweigh the known risks for most people. However, there is a small but significant increased risk of CV side effects (such as heart attack, angina or stroke). The risk is lower with smaller doses of NSAIDs used for shorter periods of time. The risk is higher in those with other CV risk factors such as a previous CV event (e.g. a heart attack), smoking, obesity, high cholesterol or diabetes. Due to these potential side effects, any NSAID should be used in the minimum effective dose and for the shortest possible time. If you have any questions or concerns about the risks of CV events, discuss the benefits and risks with your GP or rheumatologist.
- Because NSAIDs can affect your blood pressure it is a good idea to have your blood pressure monitored monthly for the first two months. This is more important if you already have high blood pressure or you are on treatment for high blood pressure.
- Shortness of breath may occur in some people with asthma. Seek medical help if your asthma suddenly becomes worse after taking NSAIDs.
- It is usually advised to check your kidney function before starting NSAIDs. Twice yearly checks are advised if you have no other risk factors. Your kidney function may need to be monitored more frequently if you have other risk factors.
Use with other medicines
- NSAIDs can interact with other medicines. You should tell your doctor (including your general practitioner, rheumatologist and other health professionals) about all medicines you are taking, including herbal and naturopathic medicines. This includes over the counter (OTC) medicines as some contain NSAIDs.
- Methotrexate for rheumatoid arthritis or other arthritis treatment can be taken safely with NSAIDs as long as your kidney function is normal.
- If you are taking anticoagulants such as warfarin or other blood thinners you should tell your doctor as combination with NSAIDs can increase the risk of bleeding.
Use with alcohol
- NSAIDs can increase the risk of a stomach or duodenal ulcer. Heavy alcohol use (more than 4 standard drinks in one session) should be avoided while taking these medicines.
- If you require surgery for any reason, treatment with NSAIDs should be stopped one week before surgery. It will be restarted again after the operation at at time agreed by your surgeon and rheumatologist.
Use in pregnancy and breastfeeding
- NSAIDs are not recommended during pregnancy unless specifically advised by your doctor. If you are planning a family or you become pregnant you should discuss this with your doctor as soon as possible.
- Some studies suggest that if NSAIDs are taken around the time of conception there may be an increased risk of miscarriage.
- If NSAIDs are taken in later stages of pregnancy, they may influence the blood vessels near the baby’s heart. Paracetamol does not have these effects.
- NSAIDs can be excreted into breast milk but most are safe while breastfeeding. Check with your doctor before taking NSAIDs while breastfeeding.
- More detailed information is available here.
How to store NSAIDs
- Store NSAIDs in a cool, dry place, away from direct heat and light (e.g. not in the bathroom).
- Keep all medicines out of reach of children.
Important things to remember
- While taking NSAIDs you should see your doctor regularly to make sure the treatment is working and to minimise any possible side effects.
- If you develop severe stomach pains, pass blood or black stools, or vomit blood, stop taking the medicine immediately. You should see your doctor as soon as possible or go to the nearest emergency department.
For more information see the Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) – printable information sheet.This Information Sheet has been prepared using materials obtained from various sources which have been reviewed by the Australian Rheumatology Association (ARA). It contains general information only and does not contain a complete or definitive statement of all possible uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions of the medicines referenced. This information is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions nor for making an individual assessment of the risks and benefits of taking a particular medicine. Decisions regarding the assessment and treatment of patients are the sole responsibility of the treating medical professional, exercising their own clinical judgment and taking into account all of the circumstances and the medical history of the individual patient. ARA has used all reasonable endeavours to ensure the information on which this Information Sheet is based is accurate and up to date. However, the ARA accepts no responsibility or liability for the accuracy, currency, reliability and/or completeness of the information contained in this Information Sheet. To the maximum extent permitted by law, the ARA expressly disclaims any liability for any injury, loss, harm or damage arising from or in connection with use of and reliance on the information contained in this Information Sheet. This information sheet is copyright and may be reproduced in its entirety but may not be altered without prior written permission from the ARA. Page updated October 2023
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