Use of nonprescription pain medications among athletes

Note: This is the first of a two-part series discussing the use of anti-inflammatory medications. This post looks at a new study detailing the use of these drugs among college athletes, which to a certain extent might be applicable to athletic individuals of all sports and levels. The second post will offer tips to safely and effectively use these medications. These posts will appear in the Family Circle Tennis Center newsletter and Cover 2 Cover magazine.

“What have you done to try to get better?” This is one form of a question I always ask patients who come to my office for a sports- or exercise-related injury. I’m trying to determine if they have tried to rest the affected body part, used ice or compression bandages, or tried physical therapy. The most common response is, “I’ve been taking ibuprofen.” Or naproxen. Or acetaminophen.

The use of over-the-counter pain medicines among athletes and weekend warriors is not new. In fact, athletic individuals take these medications without consulting a doctor very frequently. It has been reported that half of Americans over the age of 18 have used over-the-counter pain medicines in the past six months.

A study in the January/February 2011 issue of Sports Health by Douglas A. Wolf et al. looks at the use of these drugs among college football players. The authors administered surveys to football players at eight NCAA Division 1 colleges. Their findings suggest that athletes use these medications frequently, often without supervision, and often at much higher than recommended doses.

The authors found that these college football players used nonprescription pain medicines, including ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen, and naproxen, at a much greater rate than the general population. 37% of the players used more than the recommended dose. 64% decided to use the medications themselves rather than at the suggestion of a physician or athletic trainer.

Interestingly, there seemed to be several misconceptions of the medications among the athletes. 36% of those athletes who took more than the recommended dose believed that taking more would make the pain go away faster. 89% of them took more because they thought that they needed higher doses due to their larger sizes. (Adult doses are not based on body weight.) And 41% of athletes took the medications because they expected pain after activity, while 31% took them to avoid missing practice or a game.

The authors concluded that misuse of nonprescription pain medications is frequent among NCAA football players. They recommend education of players and coaches by physicians in order to decrease the chance of athletes taking higher than recommended doses or taking them to prevent anticipated pain or avoid missing practices or games.

Now I realize that almost none of the readers of my article are NCAA football players, but I do think that the study brings up some important points for all athletic individuals.

First of all, I would agree that anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, are to be used short-term to treat acute pain and swelling. In my opinion, they shouldn’t be taken for months on end. These drugs might be available without a prescription, but they do have side effects. For the most part they are safe, but they are associated with GI issues like heartburn and ulcers, high blood pressure, kidney problems, and cardiovascular events.

If an athlete or weekend warrior needs one of these medicines for more than 10 days or so, he or she should consult a physician. Proper education might decrease the chance of taking too much of them. Plus the physician might be able to recommend treatments that might not only decrease inflammation but also treat the underlying problem, such as rehabilitating with a physical therapist. Finally, if pain persists despite ice, compression, avoiding offending activities, and yes, over-the-counter pain medicines, then a sports medicine surgeon unfortunately might be needed to fix structural damage of a bone or joint.

One Response to Use of nonprescription pain medications among athletes

  1. Acute pain might be mild and last just a moment, or it might be severe and last for weeks or months. In most cases, acute pain does not last longer than six months, and it disappears when the underlying cause of pain has been treated or has healed. Unrelieved acute pain, however, might lead to chronic pain.

Leave a reply

Please note: I cannot and will not provide specific medical information within these comments, just as I won't anywhere else. Also, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive, off-topic, or spam. If you have questions, please read My Comments Policy.

david-headshot I am an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, South Carolina.

On this blog, on my podcast, and in articles for numerous publications and in media interviews, I aim to provide you leading commentary and education on injury treatment and prevention to keep you performing at your best! Learn more about me >>


I'm excited to help with information and interviews for print, radio, television, and online media. Media information >>


Writing I write articles and columns for a number of publications and organizations. Writing information >>
Sports Medicine Simplified: A Glossary of Sports Injuries, Treatments, Prevention and Much More

Learn more about the glossary >>
© 2017 Dr. David Geier Enterprises, LLC

Site Designed by Launch Yourself