Aspirin. The various types of this wonder drug have become so commonplace in our lives that almost everybody who runs has taken some form of this pain killer.
And why not? Aspirin is considered safe without any side effects, effective, inexpensive and readily available without a prescription.
Non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs—or NSAIDs—have become so ubiquitous that they are the most common over-the-counter medication in America.
Among runners, NSAIDs have an especially prominent role because aspirin decreases the chemicals in the body that cause pain, fever and swelling. When taken properly, NSAIDs will reduce muscle soreness, pain and inflammation. They will also help speed recovery from all sorts of muscular injuries. No wonder runners gobble these pain killers like candy.
But are these drugs safe? And if so, how they should be taken?
First, not all NSAIDs are alike. Actually, there are three main types of NSAIDs that are available without a prescription.
Ibuprofens, sold under such brand names as Advil, Motrin and Nuprin.
Naproxen, sold under brand names Aleve, Anaprox and Naprosyn.
Acetaminophen, sold as Tylenol and Bayer.
All three work to reduce inflammation, pain and fever, but Tylenol is the weakest in terms of anti-inflammatory effects and Naproxen products, such as Aleve, are the strongest.
But the downside to taking the strongest is those are also the hardest to tolerate. Particularly for your stomach. Most NSAIDs will irritate the stomach and intestine to some extent with symptoms ranging from cramps to nausea to bleeding and in severe cases, internal bleeding.
Taking a buffered aspirin can help negate some of the effects as can taking the Malox-coated Ascriptin. In addition, the Cox-2 inhibitors such as Celebrex and Vioxx are not as tough on the stomach as ibuprofens and Naproxen-based drugs.
Which NSAID is the right one for you is difficult to say. Trial and error and/or your doctor’s advice clearly is the best path to take because there are some risks to taking any drug. Especially since taking too much or too high a dose can cause health risks. It’s also possible to develop allergic reactions to NSAIDs. Aspirin hypersensitivity is also possible, especially for runners with a history of nasal polyps, hives or asthma. Those individuals should not take NSAIDs at all.
Nor should women who are pregnant take NSAIDs. Or if you’re breast feeding, have a history of stomach ulcers or are taking blood thinning medications, NSAIDs should not be taken.
But generally, taking NSAIDs in the prescribed manner is safe. Taking a pain reliever for a few days of any of the three classes of NSAIDs, is usually risk-free.
Many older people take aspirin every day as a way to prevent heart attacks. The American Heart Association does recommend taking aspirin at the first sign of a heart attack, but many use aspirin as a preventive measure to reduces the ability of your blood to clot. The downside of such use is that daily use of aspirin can increase the risk of ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding.
For a runner though, the greatest question those of us who have minor muscular problems have is whether we should take NSAIDs before or after running. Many runners take NSAIDs before running, but aspirin use before going for a run or race does absolutely nothing to enhance performance. Nor can it reduce inflammation before it happens. It is much more effective and safer to take aspirin after running.
Why it’s safer is because of dehydration during a run or race. When you dehydrate, high doses of NSAIDs can make dehydration worse because of how they effect kidney function. Taking NSAIDs before a long run or marathon where there is a high risk of dehydration is particularly dangerous because its use can cause kidney failure than can result in hyponatremia which can be fatal.
Most experts recommend taking NSAIDs after running to reduce muscular inflammation and/or reduce any pain. It is also best to take any type of aspirin with plenty of water as it will dissolve much faster that way and get to work quicker.
How much you should take depends on what NSAID you are taking. The stronger ones, such as Aleve and Celebrex, should only be taken once a day. The ibuprofens can be taken in higher doses more often.
The types of running injuries NSAIDs can help manage are typically muscular inflammation and pain. Such injuries as shin splints, hamstring and calf strains, sore backs and minor foot pain can often be helped by taking aspirin
If you have such an injury, ice and taking NSAIDs during the first few days of the injury can help it to heal. But after those first few days, it’s generally best to put away the aspirin (or take a low dose) to allow the body to heal on its own.