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Pain-easing pills have hazards of their own

July 04, 2009

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One of the many odd and useless things I wonder about from time to time is how people in olden times dealt with headaches.

I know they had their herbal remedies, but if no willow bark was handy, what then? Was the pain of a headache just a part of life, something to be shrugged off and worked through until it eventually subsided?

What a concept.

Thankfully, I seldom get headaches, but when I do, I'm just like everyone else - at the first flare-up of discomfort, I reach for the bottle. Of Advil, I mean.

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In a way, I suppose I'm lucky. Tylenol never worked for me.

The feelings I get from popping a couple of pain pills are usually worse than the headache itself. I feel guilty that my ancestors had to suffer while I am availed of a quick fix. I feel like a wimp for not being willing to endure even a minor pain. And - way before I or anyone else had heard of acetaminophen - I wondered if there were any medical downsides to the little pills.

Aspirin only has been with us for a little more than a century, but today, the world consumes about 44,000 tons of the stuff a year - not to mention all of the competing minor-pain medications. That's a lot of headaches.

Acetaminophen itself dates more than 100 years, but it only became popular in the latter half of the 20th century when, curiously enough, it was deemed to be safer than aspirin.

Today, we know that's probably not true, despite the fact that for years, the Tylenol ads pumped the product as the painkiller that "doctors recommend most."

Now, as with any drug, we have to wonder whether that was because doctors actually believed in the product or were the target of high-powered pharmaceutical sales teams.

This week came more contentions that acetaminophen and your liver get along about as well as warring factions in the Middle East, and a federal advisory panel recommended a ban on Percocet and Vicodin because they combine acetaminophen with a narcotic. Similarly, alcohol makes acetaminophen even more dangerous, which is not good news for people who take it to combat a hangover.

Medicines indisputably have their value, but we take them casually at our own risk. There are too many anecdotes about those who have to take a pill for something or other, then have to take another pill to counteract the side effects of the first pill and two more pills to counteract the side effects of the second pill.

When we exaggerate symptoms or press our doctors to "give us something," we might be trading a little discomfort today for bigger headaches later on.

We've demanded antibiotics so many times, they are losing their effectiveness. Heaven love our hand-washing-obsessed little selves, but we have placed such an emphasis - egged on by ads for consumer disinfectant products - on sanitizing every last kitchen surface, we never allow ourselves the chance to build up immunities to the gunk.

Tots are not allowed to play on the floor or outside in the dirt. So they are deprived of the chance to fight disease the natural way - by exposure and building resistance.

We don't need to worry about that because there will be pills to take care of any problems that might arise later on.

Except, as we are seeing, those pills have hazards of their own. Among the mind-numbing numbers of drug advertisements plying the airwaves these days is one that suggests the pill might have an outside shot of easing arthritis pain. That takes about 10 seconds. Then, for the remainder of the minute, the ad lists the potential side effects, up to and including death. It takes a while to figure out whether this is an advertisement for the drug or against the drug.

The bottom line is billions on billions of dollars are up for grabs in pharmaceutical circles. And when such staggering sums are at stake, my personal practice is to never trust any of the participants.

Certainly, health-care professionals, not writers, are the ones to turn to with concerns and questions. But it's good to keep in mind nature has a way of treating people who play by her rules better than those who use synthetic shortcuts. That willow bark is sounding better all the time.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video at www.herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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