Celebrex As Safe As OTC Pain Meds, But Should You Still Take It?

Celebrex, a prescription pain medication in the same class as Vioxx, which was pulled from the market in 2004 over cardiovascular concerns, is as safe as over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications. However, you may want to think twice before switching from Advil or Aleve to Celebrex.

The somewhat surprising finding is the result of a 10-year study conducted by Pfizer, the maker of Celebrex, involving more than 24,000 people with arthritis who either had heart disease or were at high risk for it. They were given either Celebrex (celecoxib), a drug known as a COX-2 inhibitor, Advil (ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxen). The latter two are available OTC and are known as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).

Although the study was funded by Pfizer, the lead author was Steven Nissen, MD, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, who was one of the first physicians to sounds alarms about links between Vioxx and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study not only found that all 3 medications had similar efficacy, but all had nearly the same rate of heart disease, heart attack or stroke from taking it. Results showed 2.3% of Celebrex patients had a cardiovascular event, compared with 2.5% and 2.3% of, respectively, naproxen and ibuprofen.

In addition, the Celebrex was found to have fewer side effects. For example, people taking ibuprofen had a 64% higher risk of kidney failure compared to those on Celebrex. Those on Celebrex also had fewer ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding compared to those on NSAIDS, though that class was already known to increase the risk for gastrointestinal problems.

However, Consumer Reports has maintained that for nearly all types of pain, taking an OTC pain reliever is the best choice. Why? Celebrex is no more effective than the OTC drugs and although generic celecoxib became available in 2014, it’s still vastly more expensive than the OTC medications.

CR recommends those with arthritis try Tylenol (acetaminophen) first, which is also easier on the stomach.

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