Ibuprofen carries heart attack, stroke risks on par with Vioxx's at high doses

Here's another blow for the class of painkillers known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. A study finds that these common, over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, raise the risk of heart attack when taken at high doses for long periods of time.

In fact, they can hike the risk of heart attack, stroke or dying from heart disease by about one-third. And researchers said that increase in cardiovascular risk is comparable to the dangers posed by ibuprofen's disgraced Cox-2 inhibitor cousin, Vioxx. Other Cox-2 drugs, such as Pfizer's ($PFE) Celebrex, remain on the market but are tagged with cardiovascular warnings and carry risks on par with the newly revealed NSAID risks.

We all know that the blockbuster Merck ($MRK) painkiller was withdrawn in 2004 after a high-profile safety scandal. That, in turn, triggered a slew of liability suits that ended up costing Merck more than $5 billion. The company also agreed to pay $950 million to settle Vioxx marketing allegations, and it's still fighting Vioxx-related litigation in Australia.

The rest of the NSAIDs--a class that also includes diclofenac, sold under brand names such as Voltaren--pose some similar risks at high doses. According to the new study, published today in The Lancet, NSAID treatments used at the levels common among many arthritis patients increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke by about a third on average, with the highest risks in those with an underlying predisposition to heart disease.

The concern doesn't extend to short-term use, the researchers said; lead author Colin Baigent took pains to point out that the drugs aren't necessarily risky for all uses in all patients. "A short course of lower-dose tablets purchased without a prescription, for example for a muscle sprain, is not likely to be hazardous," Baigent told the Financial Times. "I am concerned that we should not portray these drugs as 'dangerous' but that patients and their doctors should know the risks and weigh them against the benefits."

- see the FT piece (sub. req.)
- get more from Reuters
- read the journal abstract