If you’ve ever filled a prescription for a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as meloxicam (Mobic) or celecoxib (Celebrex), your pharmacist probably handed you a long printout listing all the side effects associated with the drug. And you may already be aware that long-term use of NSAIDs can put you at risk for gastric bleeding, heart attack, stroke and heart failure. But in the latest research, a new danger becomes clear.

Prescription NSAIDs are also linked to atrial fibrillation, an electrocardio glitch that makes the heart beat fast or irregularly—and this dangerous side effect can emerge within mere days of starting an NSAID.

The latest news on this side effect of NSAIDs comes from a study of 8,423 older adults (people whose average age was about 69). None of the people participating in the study had atrial fibrillation at the study’s start, but, over the course of 13 years, it developed in 10% of them. Although previous research had shown a link between NSAID use and atrial fibrillation, this study showed that, after just 15 days of using a prescription NSAID, a person had a 76% higher risk of having atrial fibrillation than a person who had never ever used an NSAID.


Of course, lots of different health conditions can cause atrial fibrillation, including existing cardiovascular disease, lung disease, hyperthyroidism and sleep apnea. Use of tobacco or alcohol as well as use of certain drugs, such as albuterol or theophylline, which are prescribed for asthma, bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also can set off atrial fibrillation. So you can’t necessarily blame the NSAIDs for the high rate of atrial fibrillation in this study—but the increase in risk suggested in this study was so great that it can’t be ignored.

Atrial fibrillation is not always a sign of danger, according to the National Heart, Blood, and Drug Institute. An episode might be a brief and rare occurrence that is of little consequence to your well-being. But if episodes happen a few times within a week and then go away, it is likely that they will eventually happen again and increasingly more often. When atrial fibrillation becomes frequent, you need to take action…because you may be at risk for stroke or heart attack.

More alarming, atrial fibrillation can be silent—that is, you may not have any of the typical symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue and shortness of breath—but it can still increase your risk for heart disease and stroke. All the more reason to do what you can to avoid atrial fibrillation from happening at all.


Scientists need to do more digging to find out whether NSAIDs can set off risky frequent episodes of atrial fibrillation. In the meantime, if you need a pain reliever, talk to your doctor about how certain pain drugs may affect heart health and voice your concerns about NSAID use. You might even seek out a pain specialist skilled in nondrug approaches to pain management. Also, remember that there are some proven alternatives to NSAIDs for pain relief…

  • Glucosamine sulfate is an alternative treatment for osteoarthritis pain. Although glucosamine sulfate supplements are not anti-inflammatory or pain-relieving drugs per se, they can reduce inflammation and ease pain over time because they help the body repair damaged joints. In fact, many studies have shown that over time, glucosamine sulfate provides better relief of osteoarthritis symptoms than do NSAIDs.
  • Ginger, which has anti-inflammatory properties similar to those of some NSAIDs, can relieve some muscle pain. What’s more, unlike NSAIDs, ginger desensitizes peripheral nerves to pain and reduces the body’s production of certain chemicals, called cytokines, which contribute to inflammation.

For even more alternatives for pain management, read about natural remedies for rheumatoid arthritis and living pain-free without drugs.