When was the last time you popped an aspirin or an Aleve for body aches, abdominal pain, or a headache? Chances are, if you have IBD, you’ve been told to refrain from doing so. People with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are told to stick to acetaminophen, or Tylenol, as it’s gentler on the stomach and not known to cause ulcers or aggravate IBD. While we’re still not supposed to take NSAIDs all the time, research is going on about whether it’s ok to take on an “as needed” or “short term” basis and if they truly put IBD patients at risk for a flare.
I ran a poll on Instagram asking those with IBD if they take NSAIDs. Of the 350 responses, 68% said no, 14% said yes, and 18% said only short term.
After my bowel resection surgery and three c-sections I was told short term NSAIDs were “safe” to help manage pain postoperatively. In full transparency, over the last year or so I’ve dealt with back pain that comes and goes and have felt the need to take NSAIDs on several occasions, but in the back of mind I know I probably shouldn’t be. I try and limit how often, and only took Tylenol for nearly 17 years. But, when the pain gets to be a bit much and I have to manage life with three little ones, sometimes I feel like I have no other choice. There’s been more and more talk lately about NSAIDs and IBD, so I wanted to take a deep dive and share what I’ve learned.
Dr. Shirley Cohen-Mekelburg, M.D., M.S., gastroenterologist and research scientist at University of Michigan and Director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program at Ann Arbor VA Healthcare System, recently conducted a study that looked into how NSAIDs impact the IBD population. She says the best research questions come from clinical experience and this is a topic that comes up quite a bit from patients.
“We have been discussing the question of whether NSAIDs cause IBD flares for years, and there is no strong evidence directing us to conclude that NSAIDs definitely cause flares, nor that they are safe for use in IBD. As opioid use and abuse continues to rise, it is becoming more and more important to consider our non-opioid analgesic options. Ultimately, the idea for this study came about from discussions between the co-investigators on this study as to the clinical implications of this work, and the methods we have available to further investigate this important research question,” she said.
What the study found about NSAIDs and IBD
The study findings were not necessarily surprising.
“It is very difficult to study the impact of NSAIDs on IBD flares because prospective comparative studies are difficult to conduct for an over-the-counter medication such as NSAIDs, which is widely available to patients in various forms. Therefore, to demonstrate equipoise and justify the need for further safety and effectiveness work, we leveraged a large national database of patients with IBD.”
Dr. Cohen-Mekelburg and her team used a multimethod approach to understand the associations between NSAIDs and IBD flares.
“First, we looked at a traditional statistical method for examining associations between an exposure (i.e., NSAIDs) and an outcome (i.e., IBD flare). We then used more advanced techniques to demonstrate that this observed association may potentially be due to bias rather than a true association. These biases are well-established and important to consider when conducting observational research.”
It’s important to note that just because there’s conversation, interest, and research going on about NSAIDs and IBD, doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a change in clinical practice or current recommendations.
“This moreso inspires us to question our current knowledge in order to justify that further work is necessary to establish the safety of NSAIDs in IBD, and specifically, for what patients and in which contexts,” she said.
Why not taking NSAIDs as a patient isn’t necessarily clear-cut
Dr. Cohen-Mekelburg wants patients to know there is “no universal recommendation” for the “best way” to take NSAIDs if you have IBD, which is why many patients get mixed messages from clinicians and their peers.
“In practice, we see that some patients take NSAIDs routinely without any adverse effects, and others may take NSAIDs for a short period of time with serious adverse effects. Ultimately, more research is necessary to better understand the safety and effectiveness of NSAIDs for IBD-related pain control.”
Just as IBD presents uniquely in each of us, our response to NSAIDs and what is safe or harmful needs to be further studied.
Dr. Cohen-Mekelburg says, “COX-2 inhibitors are NSAIDs that are more selective in their mechanism of action and are thought to carry a lower risk of gastrointestinal bleeding. However, they may carry a higher risk of other adverse effects, such as cardiac problems. Some clinicians have questioned whether these selective COX-2 inhibitors may be “safer” in IBD, but this is not known based on current evidence.”
Ultimately, the goal of Dr. Cohen-Mekelburg’s study was to bring attention to the topic of NSAIDS in IBD and to inform future work to better answer these important questions that both patients and clinicians need to improve IBD care and pain management.
Aspirin and IBD pregnancies
As an IBD mom of 3—ages 6, 4, and 20 months I recently learned that it’s recommended for women with Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis to take a baby aspirin during pregnancy. I was pretty shocked by this. Dr. Uma Mahadevan, M.D., Director, Colitis and Crohn’s Disease Center at UCSF, and Chair of IBDParenthoodProject.org, recommends all pregnant women with IBD start around week 12 of gestation. For those who don’t know, Dr. Mahadevan is at the forefront of the latest research and guidance when it comes to IBD and pregnancy research with the PIANO study (Pregnancy Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Neonatal Outcomes).
“Women with immune mediated disease, like IBD, are at higher risk of pre-eclampsia and related disorders (gestational hypertension). Going on baby aspirin has been shown to reduce that risk. The original trial was done in Europe with 162 mg, but in the U.S., we use 81 mg,” said Dr. Mahadevan.
She says this conversation is started with women during pre-conception counseling.
“Prior to these discussions, many of my patients were surprised and always checked with us. I tell them to take the baby aspirin with food and let us know if disease flares. Anecdotally they have all done well with respect to IBD. As an FYI, aspirin can increase calprotectin, so that’s something to keep in mind if you are monitoring that,” said Dr. Mahadevan.
The idea NSAIDS trigger IBD flares is controversial. Are patients taking NSAIDS because they have a flare or did the medication trigger a flare? Dr. Mahadevan says it does seem that short term (a few times a month for headaches, menstrual cramps) is low risk for triggering a flare.
In summary, if you ask most GI’s, they will tell you that a “short course” (5 times a month or less) of NSAIDS when you have IBD is “ok”. If your symptoms worsen or do not resolve, then it’s time to communicate with your care team and possibly get some lab work to get to the bottom of what’s going on. When I was in pelvic floor therapy last year, my therapist recommended T-Relief Arnica +12 Cream. It’s a game-changer for me and alleviates pain in minutes. I rub a little on sore joints and my lower back and lay on the heating pad and don’t feel the need to take any medication. Tylenol Arthritis also helps with joint pain.
The jury is still out about whether NSAIDs exacerbate Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, and further studies are needed. For general aches and pains, most GI’s recommend taking acetaminophen instead of NSAIDs if you have IBD. Have the conversation with your care team and be open and honest about how you are managing your pain whether it’s related to IBD, extraintestinal manifestations, or a completely different ailment.
One thought on “NSAIDS and IBD: Are they really a no-go?”
I’ve been completely avoiding NSAID medications for close to 20 years, ever since my first hospitalization related to IBD. It’s reassuring that short term NSAID use could be an option, depending on the situation. It’s also helpful to hear about alternative meds to manage pain. Thank you for the info!