What Pain Medications Are Safe For My Heart?

The skeptical cardiologist is frequently asked by patients if it is OK to take certain pain medications.
Yesterday, I got a variation on this  when a patient called and indicated that he had been prescribed meloxicam and tramadol by his orthopedic surgeon for arthritic leg joint pain. The orthopedic surgeon said to check with me to see if it was OK to take either of these medications. (Patients, if you want to skip to my answer skip down to the last two sections of the post and avoid the background information.)

What Is The Risk Of Pain Medications?

Cardiologists have been concerned about the increased risk of heart attack and heart failure with non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) since Vioxx was withdrawn from the market in 2004.

NSAIDS have long been known to increase risk of gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding  by up to 4-5 fold, Scientists developed Vioxx, a COX-2 inhibitor, hoping to reduce that risk but Vioxx  turned out to  increase the risk of heart attack.
Since this revelation it has become clear that NSAIDS in general increase the risk of heart problems as well as GI problems
This includes the two over the counter (OTC) NSAIDS:
-ibuprofen (in the US marked most commonly as Motrin or Advil, internationally known as Nurofen). For extensive list of brand names see here.
-naproxen (most commonly sold as Aleve. Per wikipedia “marketed under various brand names, including: Aleve, Accord, Anaprox, Antalgin, Apranax, Feminax Ultra, Flanax, Inza, Maxidol, Midol Extended Relief, Nalgesin, Naposin, Naprelan, Naprogesic, Naprosyn, Narocin, Pronaxen, Proxen, Soproxen, Synflex, MotriMax, and Xenobid. It is also available bundled with esomeprazole magnesium in delayed release tablets under the brand name Vimovo.)
In 2015  the FDA mandated  warning labels on all prescription NSAIDs including
1) a “black box” warning highlighting the potential for increased risk for cardiovascular  (CV) events and serious life-threatening gastrointestinal  bleeding, ulceration, and perforation;
(2) statements indicating patients with, or at risk for, CV disease and the elderly may be at greater risk, and that these reactions may increase with duration of use;
(3) a contraindication for use after coronary artery bypass graft surgery on the basis of reports with valdecoxib/parecoxib;
(4) language that the lowest dose should be used for the shortest duration possible
5) wording in the warning section that there is no evidence that the concomitant use of aspirin with NSAIDs mitigates the CV risk, but that it does increase the GI risk
Since then, hardly a day goes by without me having a discussion with a patient about what drugs they can safely take for their arthritis.
A reasonable approach to using NSAIDS, balancing GI and CV risks, that I have used in the past comes from a 2014 review
This table and many authorities recommend naproxen as the NSAID of choice for patients with high CV risk.
Indeed prior to the publication of the PRECISION study in 2016 I believed that naproxen was the safest NSAID for my cardiac patients. I told them it was OK to use from a CV standpoint but to use the least amount possible for the shortest time in order to minimize side effects.
The PRECISION study compared a COX-2 NSAID (celecoxicib or Celebrex) to ibuprofen and naproxen in patients who required NSAIDS for relief of their joint pain.
The findings:
cardiovascular death (including hemorrhagic death), nonfatal MI, or nonfatal stroke, occurred in 2.3% of celecoxib-treated patients, 2.5% of the naproxen-treated patients, and 2.7% of the ibuprofen group.
There was no placebo in this trial so we can only look at relative CV risk  of the three NSAIDS and it did not significantly differ.
GI bleeding was less with celecoxib than the other two NSAIDS.
Although this study has flaws it throws into question the greater CV safety of naproxen and suggests that all NSAIDS raise CV risk.

My Current Patient Advice on Cardiac Safety of Pain Meds

Here is an infographic I came across from the Arthritis Foundation (complete PDF….here)
It’s a reasonable approach for these OTC drugs and I will start handing this out to my patients.
We should consider that all NSAIDS have the potential for increasing the risk of heart attack and heart failure, raising blood pressure, worsening renal function and causing GI bleeding.
Therefore, if at all possible avoid NSAIDS.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is totally safe from a heart standpoint and overall if you don’t have liver disease it is your safest drug for arthritis. However, it provides no anti-inflammatory effects and often is inadequate at pain relief.

Treating The Whole Patient

Meloxicam is an NSAID so my patient should , if at all possible, avoid it.

The other drug he was prescribed, tramadol, is an opiod. Opiods have their own set of problems including, most importantly,  addiction and abuse.
A recent review concluded

 reliable conclusions about the effectiveness of long-term opioid therapy for chronic pain are not possible due to the paucity of research to date. Accumulating evidence supports the increased risk for serious harms associated with long-term opioid therapy, including overdose, opioid abuse, fractures, myocardial infarction, and markers of sexual dysfunction; for some harms, the risk seems to be dose-dependent.

As his cardiologist I am concerned about his heart, of course, but a good cardiologist doesn’t just focus on one organ, he looks at what his recommendations are doing to the whole person.
I certainly don’t want to have him become addicted to narcotics in order to avoid a slightly increased risk of a heart attack. On the other hand, the risks of the NSAIDS involve multiple organs, most of which don’t fall in the domain of the cardiologist.
My patient’s risk of taking either the meloxicam or the tramadol is best assessed by his primary care physician, who has the best understanding of his overall medical condition and the overall risk of dangerous side effects from these drugs.
Ultimately, I think the decision of which pain pill to take for chronic arthritis has to be made by an informed patient in discussion with his  informed (and informative) primary care physician. Only the patient can decide how much pain he is having and how much risk he/she wants to assume in relieving that pain.
Analgesically Yours,


8 thoughts on “What Pain Medications Are Safe For My Heart?”

  1. it seems like the “skeptical” cardiologist isn’t willing to make a decision. you are punting back to the primary. i hope you didn’t waste more than about 5 minutes writing this.

    • Jim,
      Thanks for your comments and references. My statement that opioids don’t effect the heart may have been too confident. The studies you referenced are weak, observational studies which raise the possibility of an association with CV disease. The confounding variables, however, are quite significant. In particular, the respiratory depression of opioids could be creating CV problems indirectly and associated use of other drugs which more directly effect the heart could be playing a role. I’ll make a correction.
      Dr. P

  2. Great information! You have told me to only take Tylenol for pain because I am on blood thinners, so that is what I do.

  3. I’ve always been curious as to why aspirin is ok (beneficial even at least from a cardiac standpoint) since it is also an NSAID? I stay away from ibuprofen as much as possible, but I sure wish Tylenol worked better. Actually it really does not work for me at all. Are there any other pain relievers on the horizon that will be effective as NSAIDS but won’t have the cardiac or GI risks? As always I enjoy your posts.

    • Thanks Rick.
      I’m not aware of any good oral pain relievers in the pipeline, unfortunately.
      The answer to your first question is not so easy.
      At low dosage aspirin selectively inhibits COX-1 and lower prostacyclin but at much higher dosages where is has inflammatory reducing properties and pain relief it behaves more like the standard NSAIDS and thus presumably has all of their GI, renal, cardiac, BP effects.
      Dr P

  4. I took Vioxx for five years. When it became known there were cardiac events associated with the drug I was weaned off. I then within six months had a massive heart attack. My cholesterol was low, no previous hx of cardiac disease, exercised regularly. No family hx of heart disease. I am allergic to darned near every med under the sun, and tylenol is the only nsaid I can tolerate. So very glad to know it doesn’t affect the heart. I just wish it really did a better job for pain relief from arthritis.


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