Acetaminophen: This Common OTC Painkiller Found Linked to Cancer

Pain KillersNew research shows that long-time chronic users of acetaminophen, the active ingredient of Tylenol, have an increased risk for blood cancers. It's still uncertain exactly what role the drug plays in the disease.

It was already believed that acetaminophen might increase the risk of the cancers, but until now that hypothesis was based on individual cases. The new study tracked a large population of healthy people over time.

According to Reuters:

"The scientists followed nearly 65,000 older men and women in Washington State. At the outset, they asked the participants about their use of painkillers over the past ten years and made sure that no one had cancer ... After accounting for things like age, arthritis and a family history of certain blood cancers, chronic acetaminophen users had nearly twice the risk of developing the disease."

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Most people don't think twice about taking a couple of Tylenols when they have a headache or backache, given that this medicine is so widely available over-the-counter. It is in more than 200 products ranging from cold medicine for kids to extra-strength pain relievers and allergy relief for adults.

Just because a medication is easy to obtain doesn't mean it's harmless, and acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol products, is a perfect example of this.  Up to 100 million Americans take acetaminophen every year, and most of them are probably completely unaware that doing so may increase their risk of cancer.

Acetaminophen Linked to Blood Cancer

A new study involving researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle revealed that 9 percent of their study participants who used large amounts of acetaminophen developed blood cancer, compared to 5 percent of those who took the drug and did not get sick.

Statistically speaking, this means chronic acetaminophen users had nearly twice the risk of developing blood cancer.

The risk was small -- chronic, "high" acetaminophen use raised the cancer risk from about 1 percent to 2 percent -- but still significant enough to raise serious safety concerns. Further, the definition of "high" use was using acetaminophen at least four times a week for at least four years -- an amount that numerous Americans could easily exceed without even realizing it. A large part of what makes acetaminophen so dangerous is that it's found in so many products; it's actually the most widely used painkiller in the United States.

And of course, polypharmacy (the use of multiple medications) is common among Americans.

When many people have a cold, headache or other ache or pain, they don't just take two Tylenol and leave it at that. Many people double or triple-up, taking multiple OTC and prescription medications, all of which may contain acetaminophen. So it's actually very easy to overdose on acetaminophen, and doing so is clearly linked to health problems.

Do You Think Tylenol is Harmless?

It is a widely held myth that Tylenol is an innocuous, perfectly safe option for pain relief.   In case you weren't aware, acetaminophen use is the NUMBER ONE cause of acute liver failure in the United States.

As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states:

" … taking more than the recommended amount [of acetaminophen] can cause liver damage, ranging from abnormalities in liver function blood tests, to acute liver failure, and even death."

So taking too much acetaminophen not only raises your risk of cancer, it also could result in liver failure or death. But, what's even more important to know is that a risk is present even with "normal" use, as Tylenol can harm your liver even at regular recommended doses. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that up to 40 percent of people who took four grams of Tylenol (or eight extra-strength Tylenol tablets) every day for two weeks had abnormal test results that signaled liver damage.

A separate study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine also found that regular use of acetaminophen was harmful. They linked it to higher rates of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as well as reduced lung function.

Long-term Tylenol use has also been linked to brain damage, increased blood pressure and kidney failure; about 15 percent of the people on dialysis today are there as a result of the damage that Tylenol (and/or aspirin) did to their kidneys.

An Important Consideration for Tylenol Users

While I do not recommend taking acetaminophen on a chronic basis, I am appreciative of the advances in modern pharmacology that allow us to effectively suppress pain while we are seeking to address the underlying cause of the problem.

Frequently the cause of pain leading to acetaminophen use is an acute injury or trauma and the only solution is time and rest.

In these cases acetaminophen can be helpful in relieving serious discomfort on a temporary basis.  In the event you do take a Tylenol product, it's important to know that most experts believe it causes its damage by depleting glutathione, an antioxidant that protects cells from toxins such as free radicals.

You can therefore limit some of the damage this drug causes by taking N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), which is the rate-limiting nutrient for the formation of the intracellular antioxidant glutathione. In fact, anyone who overdoses on Tylenol receives large doses of NAC in the emergency room, because if you keep your glutathione levels up the liver damage from the Tylenol can be prevented.

10 Safer Options for Pain Relief

Chronic pain can be one of the most difficult conditions to live with, and it can easily interfere with your daily activities and your ability to enjoy life. So it's important that you have a safe option for pain relief at your disposal.

Remember, though, that acetaminophen only provides symptomatic relief and in no way, shape or form treats the underlying cause of the pain. It is only by addressing the underlying cause that you will fully recover.

Pain actually serves a very useful purpose, signaling that something is not right in your body -- prompting you to resolve your problem at its root level. So instead of taking an OTC painkiller, work with a knowledgeable health care practitioner to determine what's really causing your pain.

In the meantime, you don't need to suffer unnecessarily. The following options provide excellent pain relief without any of the health hazards that acetaminophen and other pain relievers carry:

  1. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which is currently being used by more than 15,000 psychologists, is a drug-free approach for pain management of all kinds. EFT borrows from the principles of acupuncture, in that it helps you balance out your subtle energy system.

    It helps resolve underlying, often subconscious, negative emotions that may be exacerbating your physical pain. By stimulating (tapping) well-established acupuncture points with your fingertips, you re-balance your energy system, which tends to dissipate pain.

  2. Astaxanthin: One of the most effective oil-soluble antioxidants known. It has very potent anti-inflammatory properties and in many cases works far more effectively than many NSAIDs. Higher doses are typically required and one may need 8 mg or more per day to achieve this benefit.
  3. Ginger: This herb is anti-inflammatory and offers pain relief and stomach-settling properties. Fresh ginger works well steeped in boiling water as a tea or grated into vegetable juice.
  4. Curcumin: In a study of osteoarthritis patients, those who added 200 mg of curcumin a day to their treatment plan had reduced pain and increased mobility.

    A past study also found that a turmeric extract composed of curcuminoids (plant-based nutrients that contain powerful antioxidant properties) blocked inflammatory pathways, effectively preventing the launch of a protein that triggers swelling and pain.

  5. Boswellia: Also known as boswellin or "Indian frankincense," this herb contains specific active anti-inflammatory ingredients. This is one of my personal favorites as I have seen it work well with many rheumatoid arthritis patients.
  6. Krill Oil: The omega-3 fats EPA and DHA contained in krill oil have been found by many animal and clinical studies to have anti-inflammatory properties.
  7. Bromelain: This enzyme, found in pineapples, is a natural anti-inflammatory. It can be taken in supplement form but eating fresh pineapple may also be helpful.
  8. Cetyl Myristoleate (CMO): This oil, found in fish and dairy butter, acts as a "joint lubricant" and an anti-inflammatory. I have used this for myself to relieve ganglion cysts and a mild annoying carpal tunnel syndrome that pops up when I type too much on non-ergonomic keyboards. I used a topical preparation for this.
  9. Evening Primrose, Black Currant and Borage Oils: These contain the essential fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is useful for treating arthritic pain.
  10. Cayenne Cream: Also called capsaicin cream, this spice comes from dried hot peppers. It alleviates pain by depleting the body's supply of substance P, a chemical component of nerve cells that transmits pain signals to your brain.
  11. Methods such as yoga, acupuncture, meditation, hot and cold packs, and even holding hands can also result in astonishing pain relief without any drugs.