Recreational and professional athletes who take ibuprofen before and during an event to prevent pain in advance may be doing harm, experts warn.

The class of painkillers called non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or NSAIDs such as Aspirin and ibuprofen work to reduce inflammation from injury but also carry risks of gastrointestinal side-effects. The debate within the athletic community and among researchers is whether blocking the inflammatory process is ultimately beneficial or not.


Physiologist Greg Wells says people should be careful combining any kind of drug with exercise. (CBC)

In a study published in the December issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, nine healthy trained men cycled using different combinations of ibuprofen, no ibuprofen and rest.

The study found that ibuprofen aggravates injury in the small intestine, based on measurements of cell leakage in the gut lining.

Whether the leakage leads to pathology isn’t known and will take a longer-term study to determine.

"This is the first study to reveal that ibuprofen aggravates exercise-induced small intestinal injury and induces gut barrier dysfunction in healthy individuals," Kim van Wijck of Maastrict University Medical Centre and her co-authors wrote.

"We conclude that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs consumption by athletes is not harmless and should be discouraged."

Physical therapy professor Stuart Warden of Indiana University’s school of health and rehabilitation sciences previously wrote an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine about the practice.

"There is no clinical evidence to suggest that regular use of NSAIDs reduces injury risk or improves function in the typical athlete," Warden concluded.

Since there's no evidence of benefit and the pain relievers are potentially doing more harm than good to the kidneys and gastrointestinal system, Warden said, there's no reason for athletes to use NSAIDs beforehand. 

"It seems to be part of the sports culture right now," said Greg Wells, a sport scientist and physiologist based in Toronto.

"We need to be careful when using any type of drug, especially in combination with exercise." Athletes aim to recover as quickly as possible, but Wells advises sticking with giving the body what it needs to regenerate, like water to hydrate and nutrients from food to fuel the repair work.

Kim Aldiss said she takes ibuprofen before participating in a spinning class in Toronto.

"I take it before because my knees hurt and my hips hurt," Aldiss said, adding she feels that it helps warm up the muscles so she produces better in class.

With files from the CBC's Kim Brunhuber