Ibuprofen offers a number of compelling benefits as an over-the-counter medication for pain relief: It’s relatively inexpensive, available without a prescription and effective at soothing everything from toothaches to sore muscles. Ibuprofen isn’t generally thought of as addictive, which is why it’s seen as one of the safer prescription painkiller and opioid alternatives. However, few users understand the dangers of relying on ibuprofen over a long period of time. People who use the drug regularly can be at risk of developing an ibuprofen addiction that may cause serious, long-term health complications.

Examining the Prevalence and Impact of Ibuprofen Use and Dependence

Ibuprofen is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), a class of medications taken by more than 29 million American adults every year. Because ibuprofen is considered fairly safe, it’s not uncommon for users to take more of the drug than they should. A 2018 study found that up to 15% of users took more than the recommended dose, and over one-third paired ibuprofen with other NSAIDs such as aspirin and naproxen. Regular users may gradually increase their dose to achieve the same pain-relieving effect, which can lead to an ibuprofen addiction that’s difficult to overcome on their own.

Identifying the Risks and Consequences of Long-Term Ibuprofen Use and Dependence

People who are dependent on ibuprofen may experience common side effects such as gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. Long-term use can also cause serious side effects, including:

  • Loss of appetite, nausea and stomach pain
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as chills, aches, fatigue and fever
  • Yellowing of the skin, itchiness, blisters, rashes and hives
  • Eye problems, such as yellowing of the eyes, impaired vision, redness and pain
  • Swelling of the face, hands, arms, throat, feet and legs
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Difficulty urinating, bloody urine or cloudy urine
  • Excessive tiredness
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Rapid heartbeat

Long-term use of ibuprofen can also be dangerous for the unborn babies of pregnant women. In 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning advising women to avoid NSAID use after the 20th week of pregnancy.

NSAIDs such as ibuprofen can cause kidney problems in the developing fetus, which can lead to low levels of amniotic fluid. Without enough amniotic fluid, an unborn baby may have difficulty developing their muscles, lungs and digestive system. Women who abuse ibuprofen in the latter half of their pregnancy may suffer miscarriage, have underweight babies or give birth to children who develop health conditions throughout their life.

People who take too much ibuprofen also may be at risk of an overdose. Symptoms include:

  • Slow breathing
  • Rapid and uncontrollable eye movements
  • Dizziness
  • Blue coloring of the mouth and nose

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, contact a doctor or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Highlighting the Connection Between Ibuprofen Addiction and Other Substance Use Disorders

People who have an ibuprofen dependency can exhibit many of the same symptoms and behaviors seen with other substance use disorders, such as addiction to alcohol or illicit drugs. According to the DSM-5 Criteria for Diagnosing and Classifying Substance Use Disorders, the following signs may indicate an ibuprofen dependency or addiction:

  • Exceeding the recommended dose or maximum daily limit
  • Taking ibuprofen preventively
  • Taking more ibuprofen than intended
  • Needing to take more ibuprofen over time to get the same effect, indicating increased tolerance
  • Making plans to cut back on ibuprofen use but being unable to do so
  • Continuing to take ibuprofen even after experiencing side effects
  • Using ibuprofen excessively, affecting the user’s ability to fulfill obligations at work, school or home
  • Withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, depression and fatigue

A substance abuse counselor will use these criteria to determine if a patient has an ibuprofen dependency that may require professional treatment.

Strategies for Managing Ibuprofen Dependence, Including Medications, Therapy and Lifestyle Changes

If you feel you might be taking too much ibuprofen, there are several options available to help lower your dependency, such as switching to another type of pain-relieving medication. Acetaminophen can be a good choice for general pain relief and is safe for pregnant women, but it’s not recommended for people with liver problems.

For muscle aches, try a topical treatment such as lidocaine cream or diclofenac gel. Avoid medications that contain other NSAIDs, such as aspirin, naproxen, ketorolac and meloxicam. Your doctor can help you find a non-NSAID drug that works for you.

Natural remedies, such as turmeric and omega-3 fatty acid supplements, have been shown to reduce pain with an effectiveness similar to that of NSAIDs. These remedies have limited side effects and can be safely used to treat arthritis pain and other inflammatory conditions.

Pain can also be treated through non-medication methods, such as massage, heat and cold applications, acupuncture, meditation and physical therapy. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is another promising treatment for chronic pain management. This noninvasive treatment uses electrical impulses to stimulate nerve cells and block pain messages to the brain. TENS works quickly and can be self-administered in the comfort of your home.

Hypnosis is a promising non-pharmacological option for people with ibuprofen dependency. A doctor or psychologist guides patients through altered states of consciousness, which can help them relax and shift their attention away from pain.

Making certain lifestyle changes may be able to lower inflammation and reduce pain. These include:

  • Exercising for at least 20 minutes a day to improve muscle strength and ease stiffness
  • Eating a healthy diet including plenty of vegetables, fruits and lean meats or other types of protein
  • Reducing stress levels by meditating, practicing a favorite hobby or spending time in nature
  • Lowering alcohol consumption
  • Maintaining a regular sleep schedule

Ibuprofen users who struggle with dependency may find it helpful to speak with a therapist. A therapist who specializes in drug addiction can suggest methods of safely cutting back on ibuprofen, help patients understand their dependency and encourage them to build a support network of family and friends. Therapists also help people manage symptoms of depression and anxiety, which can be common in people living with chronic pain.

If You’re Dependent on Ibuprofen, Help Is Available

Managing an ibuprofen dependency can be difficult — especially if you’re living with chronic pain — but you don’t need to face this challenge alone. If you’d like to cut back on your ibuprofen use but aren’t sure where to start, contact us at Sunlight Recovery today to get help.