Think You Know What Will Help Your Achy Knees? Think Again

NSAIDs like ibuprofen, naproxen may actually exacerbate osteoarthritis inflammation: scientists
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 22, 2022 11:08 AM CST
Popping These Meds for Creaky Knees May Make Things Worse
In this Oct. 5, 2006, file photo, boxes of Advil capsules are shown in New York.   (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

When those achy joints start acting up, it seems to be popular wisdom to pop an Advil, Motrin, or Aleve. Now, however, scientists say ibuprofen and naproxen, sold under these brand names and others, may actually exacerbate things for patients suffering from osteoarthritis, worsening their inflammation instead of tamping it down, reports the Philly Voice. Upward of 32 million US adults have osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, in which cartilage in one's joints starts to disintegrate, leading to changes in the bone underneath. The condition, which most often occurs in the hands, hips, and knees, results in pain, swelling, and stiffness that can get so bad for some that they can't work or carry out daily routine tasks without difficulty.

Doctors have long suggested ibuprofen and naproxen, a class of meds known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, to alleviate the inflammation and pain. But researchers say little is known about how effective NSAIDs really are for osteoarthritis, and a new study being presented next week at the Radiological Society of North America's annual get-together shows it may not be the best treatment after all for this particular condition. Per a release, study lead Johanna Luitjens of the University of California-San Francisco and her team looked most closely at how NSAIDs affect the inflammation of joint-lining membranes, a malady called synovitis. The scientists examined around 1,000 subjects who suffered from moderate to severe knee osteoarthritis. A group of 277 patients took NSAIDs for at least a year over the course of the four-year study; 793 control subjects didn't.

Researchers used MRI imaging to look for inflammation biomarkers, such as the thickness and composition of the patients' cartilage, and found that not only did the NSAIDs not offer any long-term benefits to those taking them—cartilage quality and joint inflammation were actually worse in the NSAID group, both at the start of the experiment and at their four-year follow-up, than in the control group. "We were surprised by the findings," Luitjens tells Today. She says that use of the meds needs to be "revisited" and more studies conducted. Luitjens offers one theory as to why the NSAID group might have fared worse: Because their meds eased their pain in the short term, the patients may have engaged in more physical activity, aggravating their synovitis further. (Read more pain relievers stories.)

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