January 22, 2011

The Dangers of "Vitamin I"

In distance running and other endurance events, many people get a little cavalier about taking Ibuprofen, Advil, Aspirin and the like.  (These medications are in a class of drug called NSAIDs - Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs.)  Heck... I even have friends who refer to Ibuprofen as "Vitamin I."  The danger is that taking any of the above can result in kidney damage or failure if you're not careful, especially when taken before working out.

I actually had a whole, long schpeal written out that I was tweaking to make less boring when my friend, Grace at How I Complicated My Life Today, came out with her own 2 part post on the same topic.  Rather than re-invent the wheel, I'm going to steal work in concert with (ya like that?) her blog post.  She's a pharmacist and does a great job of talking about how NSAIDs work (Part I) and which might be good for you (Part II).

But there are a couple things I want to add/emphasize:

1.  NSAIDs can be dangerous to your kidneys when you're working out.  I already mentioned that but it should be emphasized.  Taking Advil or Aleeve before or during a long run is a bad idea.  You're likely already dehydrated, putting a strain on your kidneys.  Then you add a drug with potential to damage your kidneys & it gets even more concentrated there because you're dehydrated (and have less fluid in your vessels.)  It's a recipe for disaster.  Just because you've done it before doesn't mean it'll be ok next time.

2.  Another option is Tylenol or acetaminophen (they're the same - just the brand & generic names).  Grace didn't talk about it because Tylenol isn't an NSAID.  It's in a class of its own.  The main difference is that unlike NSAIDs, Tylenol isn't an anti-inflammatory.  (It does, however, relieve pain & reduce fevers.)  The advantage of Tylenol for athletes is that it is processed by your liver rather than your kidneys and it's not associated with kidney damage.  It can cause damage to your liver so it's very important not to exceed dosage recommendations.  If you have any other liver problems or drink a lot of alcohol, this is probably not the right choice for you.  But if you need something to help you get through a race or to relieve some pain afterward, Tylenol may help.

3.  As with any drug you take or pain you might have, ask your doctor first.  They can give you a better idea what might be right for you based on your specific medical history and other medications you take.  More importantly, they should have suggestions on tackling the source of your pain (rather than numbing it with pills.)  If they can't help, get a referral to a sports medicine doctor or find another family doctor who does a lot of musculoskeletal or sports medicine.  You've got options.

4.  Last but not least, don't ignore your pain.  This can sometimes be the hardest thing.  A lot of us don't like taking time off from our sanity sports or asking for help.  We see the warning signs, bright & clear, but ignore them.  Just pop in another couple pain relievers and get back on the treadmill or bike, run just a couple more miles...  Sometimes there's a simple fix.  For example, strength training or crosstraining can often help stabilize joints that are causing pain.  Unfortunately, sometimes it's not so easy.  But most of the time, addressing the problem sooner rather than later is a good idea.  Waiting until you can't walk or sleep or move usually means more time that you're on the sidelines and can even result in permanent damage.  Remember that pain relievers don't address the source of your pain, they simply mask it.


  1. Since taking up running 18 months ago, this is a topic that I've read about in several different places, but this is a great summary! Thanks!

  2. Thanks, I needed this info. I've heard about this topic but haven't taken the time to put it all together. Good informative blog post.

  3. I'm SO glad you posted this! It drives me crazy that so many athletes pop ibuprofen like candy--it's not something to be messed with!

  4. Wow! I just had this conversation with my doctor yesterday! She asked me if I'd been taking anything for the pain and I said, no because I didn't want to "mask" the pain and make it go away just so I could keep moving. She then referred me to a PT :) Thanks for posting about this. Looks like I'll be buying a bottle of Tylenol for Husband and me next time I'm at Target :)

  5. Great post.