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Take painkillers before a workout? You may be at a disadvantage

Take painkillers before a workout? You may be at a disadvantage

Posting in Technology

If you're an athlete who swears by taking painkillers to numb the pain, it may be all in your head. Worse, you may be hindering your own workout.

If you're an athlete who swears by painkillers to numb the pain, it may be all in your head.

When it comes to taking popular painkiller ibuprofen -- for Americans, that's Advil and Motrin, along with store brands under various monikers -- you may be hindering your own workout.

A post on the New York Times Well blog describes a recent study revealing "disturbing" findings that the majority of ultramarathoners in the Western States Endurance Run, an annual 100-mile course in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, were administering their own physiological stress by taking over-the-counter ibuprofen pills before and during the race.

According to the study, the runners displayed significantly more inflammation and other markers of high immune system response than the runners who hadn't taken anti-inflammatories.

Ibuprofen users also showed signs of mild kidney impairment and, both before and after the race, of low-level endotoxemia, a condition in which bacteria leak from the colon into the bloodstream.

Physiologist David Nieman, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the North Carolina Research Campus, led the study, which was originally commissioned to research the stresses that the Western States race places on the bodies of participants.

What stuck out was the "pain prevention" measures that athletes take. The majority of Western States runners told researchers that they thought ibuprofen would help them mitigate pain and discomfort during the race and prevent soreness afterward.

But the latest research into the physiological effects of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers, or NSAIDs, shows the complete opposite effect. Not only did ibuprofen and other NSAIDs not reduce the perception of pain and decrease soreness --there was no notable difference in how users and non-users felt -- but the drugs actually slowed the healing of injured muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones in lab tests.

So what exactly does ibuprofen do?

NSAIDs inhibit the production of prostaglandins, which help sensitize the body to pain and aid in the creation of collagen, a building block of many tissues. Fewer prostaglandins yields less collagen building blocks, inhibiting healing from the micro-tears and bodily trauma during a workout.

What ibuprofen will do is treat acute pain. But overall, preventative use? Bad news.

By taking iboprofen before each workout, athletes are actually blunting the body's natural reaction to exercise, preventing it from creating denser bones and stronger tissues and, in turn, hindering their next workout.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure