Even though his doctors had advised strongly against it, a 54-year-old lawyer diagnosed with multiple blockages in his heart had started taking a painkiller every four hours to deal with the pain in his chest. Cardiologists told him he needed an urgent surgery, but he got himself discharged from the hospital citing “unfinished work”, promising to return after three days.
A week later, he was rushed into the hospital’s casualty ward in a critical condition. He died in the next 24 hours.
“We could have saved him had he not self-medicated. His post-mortem report showed a ruptured heart, a side-effect of taking such painkillers frequently for long periods,” said Dr Vijay Surase, a cardiologist at Jupiter hospital, Thane, who was treating him.
Painkillers, essentials in every household’s first aid box, should not be looked at as magic pills for various body aches, doctors said. Although they are among the safer drugs, it is best to take them under supervision as the chemicals they are made of can react or interfere with bodily functions if taken in excess.
“Many people indiscriminately take painkillers which are available over the counter. Although these can provide some relief, they have side-effects such as inflammation of the stomach, which can lead to ulcers and even perforation of the intestine,” said Dr S Utture, honorary professor of surgery, St George Hospital. “For instance, if we prescribe painkillers for ten days, some patients continue to take them for years. This can result in severe complications.”
Some surgeons say that they treat a few patients every month for ulcers in the intestine caused by the unsupervised consumption of painkillers. “Painkillers, if taken for long, can cause gastritis, which can deteriorate into ulcers. At least two patients come to us every month for emergency medical care after vomited blood because of ulcers,” said Dr Roy Patankar, endoscopic surgeon who runs a private nursing home in Chembur.
A week ago, Dr Patankar operated on a senior citizen who had been taking painkillers for a year-and-a-half for the acute pain osteoarthritis was causing in his knees. “He was critically ill when brought to the hospital, and constantly vomiting blood because of the ulcers,” said Dr Patankar. After an endoscopy (a minimally-invasive surgical procedure) to treat the ulcers, the patient was admitted in the intensive care unit for two days. He survived.
Case study: A habit that destroyed her kidneys
Thane resident Meenal Jain, 58, is battling kidney failure, a condition she created because of her habit of taking too many painkillers.
Jain has been suffering from hypertension from the past ten years. She was warned against abusing pain medication by her cardiologist, Dr Vijay Surase from Jupiter Hospital, and her relatives, but she ignored their advice. “Every time she had some body pain, she would go to a nearby chemist and buy painkillers,” said her son Mukesh, who runs a glassware shop in Thane.
A fortnight ago, when the family took Jain to her cardiologist for a regular check-up, the doctor told them her kidneys have failed and she may need dialysis followed by an urgent kidney transplant.
“I had warned the patient against taking these medicines more than 20 times but she refused to stop her abuse of painkillers. She was only suffering from hypertension and the pills were not needed,” said Surase. “While talking to her, she revealed that she had body pain for which she took these medicines, so even if there was a little pain, she would take a pill, sometimes even twice or three times in a day, thus ending up with damaged kidneys,” said Dr Surase.
Doctors said relatives of patients, especially elderly ones, should be cautious and ensure that the medicines they consume are prescribed by doctors.
“We were always against her taking these medicines but she persisted. When we tried to stop her she started taking it secretly,” said Mukesh. “The unfortunate part is that she still does not agree that she made a mistake, but now we are concentrating on her treatment. We have thrown away her painkillers.”