NSAIDs—or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and Advil—have long been used by athletes to blunt pain. While popping a few of these little pills can certainly ease aches and pains in the short term, research shows that using NSAIDs to prevent and treat inflammation before, during, and after exercise isn't exactly a good idea.
The most recent study done on this topic, published in the Emergency Medical Journal, had 89 athletes in several ultra-marathons around the world take ibuprofen or a placebo at the 50-mile stage of their race. Afterward, researchers found most of the athletes had creatinine levels high enough to indicate acute kidney injury, but the incidence was 18 percent higher in those who had taken an NSAID.
In other words, we know NSAIDs have negative health implications—and not just because of kidney-related health problems. "After performing an aerobic activity that already increases blood pressure and heart rate, such as running, NSAIDs may not be the best option to eliminate inflammation," says Shoshana Gelb, clinical director at Professional Physical Therapy. "They have been linked to further raising blood pressure and may increase the risk for heart failure and atrial fibrillation. The disturbance in heart rhythm can further lead to blood clots, creating other health complications."
In the heat of a painful moment, though, it's hard to know what to do instead. Here's what the professionals suggest:
Try an anti-inflammatory diet or, at the very least, an infrared sauna.
While this won't change your pain level overnight, start by removing inflammatory foods from your diet (looking at you, sugar) and adding in anti-inflammatory ones. After a certain period of time has passed, you will likely see changes in your pain level. "Approaches to control inflammation naturally used successfully by endurance athletes include a whole-foods, plant-based diet," says holistic cardiologist Dr. Joel Kahn. "Consider taking herbs like turmeric and Boswellia, and book an infrared sauna."
Trust your body's natural healing mechanisms.
Believe it or not, your body has a strong ability to heal itself. Dennis A. Cardone, chief of primary care sports medicine at NYU Langone Orthopedics, cautions against relying on NSAIDs and suggests using more natural healing methods. "Evidence over several years shows that our bodies’ natural inflammatory response is beneficial to the healing process," he explains. "Low-grade clinical muscle injury is related to the level of exercise. And with some rest and gradual stretching programs, exercises can help prevent injury."
Gelb suggests utilizing traditional recovery methods like icing (and cryotherapy, if you're feeling ambitious) and electrical stimulation. "Use of modalities like this along with hands-on techniques like manual stretching and massage can help to alleviate swelling and maintain tissue elasticity that are ultimately causing pain."
So put down the ibuprofen bottle and invest in some turmeric and a massage. Your body will thank you.
Want to get started on an anti-inflammatory diet? Here are 11 foods you should consider introducing.