According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, about 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, an incidence rate that is higher than the combined number of people living with diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. The total annual incremental cost of healthcare due to pain ranges from $560 billion to $635 billion in the United States. “Many chronic pain sufferers use over-the-counter (OTC) medicines for relief, but these therapies can sometimes be associated with serious side effects, such as stomach bleeding, ulcers, and liver damage, among other complications,” says Byron Cryer, MD.


A Gut Check

Recently, the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) released findings of its Gut Check: Know Your Medicine survey, which was conducted online by Harris Poll in 2015 among 1,015 U.S. adults aged 30 and older, including 479 who currently experience chronic pain, as well as 251 U.S. gastroenterologists. The AGA’s educational campaign, which was sponsorship supported by McNeil Consumer Healthcare, was designed to motivate and encourage individuals to engage in the safe use of pain medicine.

According to the survey results, two of every three chronic pain sufferers have been experiencing pain for 2 years or longer, but only about one in 10 has been diagnosed with chronic pain by a healthcare professional. About 43% of chronic pain sufferers reported knowing that they have taken more than the recommended dose of an OTC medication at some point.  Many of these patients believed the labeled directions on OTC pain drugs are just guidelines, and another 43% stated they knew what works best for them. In addition, 38% of consumers were unaware that combining two or more NSAIDs or combining two or more acetaminophen products increases their risk of serious health complications when taking OTC pain medications. “The survey shows that many patients are routinely ignoring medication labels on OTC drugs,” says Byron Cryer, MD. “This is a dangerous practice because it can put people at risk for overdoses. The survey also showed that many gastroenterologists reported that the majority of their chronic pain patients are using OTC drugs at a high dose and for a longer duration than what is recommended. The findings highlight the need for clinicians to connect the dots for their patients that OTC pain medications can increase their risk for overdose symptoms.”

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Patient Education Warranted

According to Dr. Cryer, the survey findings highlight the importance of educating patients about the risks associated with OTC pain medications. “Patients need to understand that taking more than the recommended dose of OTC drugs can be hazardous,” he says. “Physicians need to be vigilant and ask their patients about their OTC drug use to ensure that they’re being used safely.”

The AGA has developed an online video game that patients can play in order to become better educated on the benefits and risks of OTC pain medications. The association also has recommends that chronic pain not be self-managed with OTC medications alone. “Physicians should talk to their patients about all medications they are taking and ensure that patients are reading and following all medicine labels,” Dr. Cryer says.