An Overview of Aspirin for Back Pain

Aspirin and a glass of water
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The use of aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) in some form is nearly as old as civilization itself. Hippocrates, and even the ancient Egyptians, used an early form of it—salicin, from the white willow tree—to treat pain and fever.

But, aspirin as a medicine to treat pain was developed by the Bayer company in the 1800s. More recently, aspirin has become a therapy for preventing cardiovascular disease and stroke, but using it in this way should be done according to your doctor's recommendations.

Overview

Categorized as an analgesic, aspirin is an over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, or NSAID. NSAIDs are used to relieve pain and inflammation. And, while aspirin is the sole ingredient in some NSAIDS, in others it is combined with different drugs.

Aspirin treats pain, fever, and inflammation. It can be used for muscle pain, arthritis, minor injuries, and other conditions. It is available in tablet and capsule form, as gum, or as a suppository. The tablets may be plain aspirin, enteric-coated, extended release, buffered, or chew-able. If you take an extended release or enteric-coated tablets, take them whole—do not crush or chew.

Like other NSAIDs, aspirin works by preventing chemicals (called prostaglandins) from being formed. The body makes a variety of these prostaglandins, each with a different function.

What's the purpose of a prostaglandin? The short answer is it varies.

Some bring about inflammation. Others relay pain signals, help blood clots form, or maintain the health of the lining of the stomach. As aspirin blocks the creation of prostaglandins, it may contribute to, among other things, prevention of pain and/or inflammation.

When you take aspirin, it is distributed all around the body.

This means, along with pain relief, it may exert its effects in unintended places as well.

Storage

Aspirin is readily available in generic form. There are also quite a few common brands of aspirin, including but not limited to: Bayer, Ascriptin, Ecotrin, Empirin, Zorprin, and others.

Many people store these medications in their bathroom medicine chest or in the kitchen near the faucet. But to keep your aspirin in good working order, it is best to store it away from heat and moisture. If it smells like vinegar, it has likely begun to disintegrate and should be discarded.

Side Effects

Side effects associated with aspirin are generally rare, but they can occur.  After you swallow an aspirin, its active ingredient is released in your stomach.

Recall that prostaglandins play a role in blood clotting as well as maintaining the stomach lining. As aspirin inhibits the formation of prostaglandins, it may lead to bleeding in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Side effects in the GI tract can include irritation or ulcers. And, if you already have a peptic ulcer, aspirin may cause a recurrence.

Some people try to minimize or avoid GI-related side effects by taking an enteric-coated form of the drug. The thinking is that enteric-coated aspirin waits until it reaches the small intestine before it dissolves.

(This is because the pH in the small intestine is more alkaline than it is in the stomach.) The problem is this strategy doesn't lower the risk of GI tract problems related to taking aspirin. In fact, it may even be harmful.

According to The Berkeley Wellness, enteric-coated aspirin is designed to minimize stomach discomfort, which is a different issue than reducing the risk of GI tract bleeding. Plus, some prostaglandins—and thromboxanes, another substance that aspirin blocks—are beneficial to your stomach.

But aspirin is an equal opportunity blocker, meaning these useful chemicals will also be prevented from forming.

The Berkeley Wellness explains that the systemic effect of taking aspirin, regardless of where in the body the aspirin dissolves, is what often leads to stomach bleeding.

An aspirin allergy may also occur in some individuals, which would take the form of hives, facial swelling, wheezing, and/or shock. People with GI tract, liver or kidney problems, and an allergy to aspirin or other NSAIDS should check with their doctor before taking aspirin.

Aspirin can sometime causes ringing in the ears and/or partial deafness. If hearing problems occur after you take aspirin, call your doctor immediately.

Alcohol and aspirin are not a good mix. Taking alcohol with aspirin can increase the risk of stomach bleeding or otherwise affect how the drug works in your body. Ask your doctor or read the label carefully to find out the maximum number of drinks you can have between doses.

Aspirin and Children

Aspirin and kids don't always mix. Aspirin is known to cause a rare disease in minors called Reye's Syndrome, which has devastating and even lethal outcomes. If you do give aspirin to your child, monitor them carefully to be sure they are not taking more than the recommended dose. Overdosing is particularly dangerous in children.

One effective way to do this is to keep the aspirin bottle out of their reach. Another is to never give a child an adult version of aspirin. Symptoms in children that require immediate medical attention include changes in behavior, drowsiness, and/or fast or deep breathing.

Consult Your Doctor

If you are breastfeeding, pregnant or trying to get pregnant, have stomach problems, lupus, asthma, heart failure, high blood pressure, kidney disease, vitamin K deficiency, nasal polyps, anemia, bleeding or clotting problems, or are a smoker, consult your doctor before trying aspirin.

Drug Interactions

It is also a good idea to consult with your doctor before adding aspirin to your current medication mix, as a number of substances may interact with it.

 Interactions may occur not only with medications, such as other NSAIDs, but also with some herbal supplements or recreational drugs.

Speak to your doctor if you take medication for diabetes, gout, or seizure or if you take hormones, antacids, blood thinning medication, other aspirin products, or are just unsure about combining aspirin with what you currently take.

Dosage

Take aspirin according to the instructions on the box. Don't take more pills than indicated or dose more frequently. Drink a full glass of water with the dose.

If you take aspirin routinely and you miss a dose, take it as soon as you can, unless it is almost time for the next dose. If you have health problems, or are taking other medications, check with your doctor for the dosage information that is right for you.

Sources:

Brenner, GM, Stevens, CW, Pharmacology. 2nd ed. Saunders Elsevier. 2006. Philadelphia.

Stringer, J. Basic Concepts in Pharmacology. 3rd ed. McGraw Hill. 2006.

Berkeley Wellness. Is Enteric-Coated Aspirin Safer? Berkeley Wellness Newsletter. April 2013.

Cryer, B., Mahaffey, K. J Multidiscip Healthc. Gastrointestinal ulcers, role of aspirin, and clinical outcomes: pathobiology, diagnosis, and treatment. March 2014.

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