Over the last few years, headlines concerning the dangers of acetaminophen — the over-the-counter painkiller that is the principle ingredient in Tylenol and Excedrin — have sprouted up, striking fear in the hearts and minds of those instructed to take the medication daily. Now, as more and more research points to the dangers of this everyday pain reliever, top physicians are advising many to steer clear.
For decades, people have used the one “doctors recommend most” for relief from the aches and pains associated with many conditions.
Acetaminophen is also found as an ingredient in a number of popular prescription painkillers, such as Vicodin and Percoset, which an advisory committee to the FDA once recommended banning. The reason? Acetaminophen can cause severe liver damage, and even death, especially when it’s combined with other drugs.
According to the FDA, acetaminophen was the leading cause of liver failure in the U.S. between 1998 and 2003. In fact, acetaminophen is #5 on the list of the top 15 drugs associated with fatal events. (Remember Vioxx? Big Pharma is hoping we’ll forget about this painkiller, which was responsible for killing an estimated 60,000 Americans before it was finally taken off the market.)
As part of a review of acetaminophen’s safety, an FDA panel voted to lower the maximum daily dosage of over-the-counter acetaminophen products. But many admit that limiting dosages will not necessarily stop people from taking as much pain medication as they think they need to control pain.
How Much Acetaminophen is Safe?
According to the Alliance for Natural Health, “Acetaminophen is dangerous because just a small extra amount can create a dangerous overdose: twice the maximum safe dose taken over just several days could cause severe liver damage. Sometimes, according to the former head of the Drug Information Center at the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, the difference between a safe dose and a dangerous dose is two Extra Strength Tylenol tablets.
We already know plenty about how over-the-counter pain medicines can be problematic, particularly when taken regularly and in maximum dosages. Here’s a run down:
- Acetaminophen can damage your liver in as little as two weeks, even at currently acceptable maximum levels.
- Acetaminophen is the leading cause of liver failure in the U.S., sending 56,000 people to the emergency room, and the cause of over 400 deaths annually.
- High doses of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers like ibuprofen, aspirin and naproxen) can lead to stomach ulcers and bleeding in the brain.
- People who take regular, heavy doses of painkillers are more likely to have diabetes, arthritis and signs of heart disease, according to a study by Eric Larson, MD, of Seattle’s Group Health Center for Health Studies.
Unfortunately, many doctors do not know much about the role that nutritional supplements can play in managing joint pain and inflammation, but there are safer, more effective alternatives out there. Supplements like glucosamine or hyaluronic acid, for instance, have been shown in multiple clinical studies to be more effective at providing long-term relief for joint pain than both acetaminophen and NSAIDs.
The truth is, when you have chronic joint pain, you may be inclined to take a pain medication day after day, for years on end. While popping an over-the-counter pain pill may seem fast and efficient, it can have serious health damaging effects. The recent warnings about acetaminophen are proof that just because your doctor may prescribe it, and even if it’s “over-the-counter,” that doesn’t mean it’s completely safe.