New Study Investigates Painkiller Use (and Abuse) Among People Who Exercise

A new study suggests people who exercise use pain killers frequently and not always as recommended by a doctor or even the label on the bottle.

From stiff muscles to sore joints, pain that is induced or exacerbated by exercise is a significant concern amongst the athletes I train, especially adult athletes. Devices that deliver heat or cold and various kinds of myofascial release devices like foam rollers come to mind as products frequently used to deal with exercise-related pain. However, many people still turn to painkillers to deal with the aches and stiffness associated with exercise. To find out just how widespread painkiller use is, researchers examined 263 exercisers in a recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

The technical term for painkiller is analgesic. Whenever you hear this term it refers to the general class of drugs that relieve pain. However, there are many different kinds of drugs that accomplish this task through various means. The most common kinds of analgesics are acetaminophen, NSAIDs, and opiates. The first two can usually be obtained over the counter, so they are much more prevalent than the more closely-controlled opiates, like morphine.

While it is in its own class, acetaminophen is just one drug. You may know it better by the major brand name Tylenol. Acetaminophen acts on the nervous system to prevent mild pain sensations. NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), by contrast, are a range of drugs that reduce pain and inflammation. NSAIDs like aspirin and ibuprofen are also generally considered to have more side effects than acetaminophen, but all analgesics are toxic in high enough dosages.

In the new study, the researchers reviewed the present literature and sought to determine the rates of analgesic use in college-aged individuals. The study focused on exercise-induced pain, which hadn’t been researched in the past. The researchers also wanted to know if there were any predictors of analgesic use, such as the type of exercise.

In their literature review, the authors noted that in the past when various populations had been studied, the shocking numbers were found in the younger populations. For example, just over one-third of junior high students, one-half to three-quarters of college athletes, and three-quarters of high school football players were regular analgesic users. Young people were amongst the most frequent users.

In the present study, the researchers questioned 263 participants about their analgesic use and found that 36% of them had used analgesics specifically for exercise-related pain. Over half of them used analgesics once per week, and about a fifth used them twice weekly. Only one percent of participants were directed by a health professional to take the pain reliever.

The drugs of choice tended to be the strongest (and potentially most harmful) of the over-the-counter variety. One percent of the participants used prescription drugs. Only three percent chose acetaminophen. Four percent used naproxen (e.g. Aleve). 48% used ibuprofen. 44% used a mixture of different drugs.

Out of the participants who took analgesics for exercise, less than half reported that they were likely to follow the directions on the bottle. A quarter indicated that they were either likely or very likely to exceed recommended dosages. Not as many participants reported not waiting the recommended time to take a second dose, and no one stated they used analgesics as a preventive measure. Women were more likely than men to take analgesics for exercise-related pain.

In college-aged exercisers, over one in three use and, in some cases, abuse painkillers. What’s worse, the researchers warn that analgesics may substantially reduce muscle repair after exercise. The bottom line here is to avoid painkillers and opt for drug-free methods of relieving pain from exercise.


1. Christi Brewer, et. al., “Use of Analgesics for Exercise-Associated Pain: Prevalence and Predictors of Use in Recreationally Trained College-Aged Students,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(1), 2013.

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