Anyone with a television has seen the commercials. “Just two Aleve and I can play tennis all day again. Thanks, Aleve!” Or how about the man who can run a half marathon after popping some Advil? The commercials for NSAIDs and other OTC pain relievers all make the same promise: take our drug and that pain that prevents you from doing your favorite activity will be gone!
What these commercials fail to point out, however, is that these drugs are not curative. There is nothing in naproxen, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen that will restore your joints or slow the progression of your arthritis, tendonitis, or whatever the hell else you have. Yes, these drugs will treat your pain, and they’ll do it quite effectively. Perhaps a little too effectively. And this is one of the dangers of OTC pain medications: they permit you to continue physical activity that is damaging your body.
Sure, Advil will mask the pain of your runner’s knee, allowing you to run again. But running is what caused your pain in the first place. Tennis elbow? Yeah, I guess downing some Motrin will stop the pain..so you can go out and damage your elbow all over again by playing tennis! There’s this attitude in this country, this entitlement, this “I shouldn’t have to give up my favorite activities!” sentiment. Yes, yes you should have to give them up. Like, say, when the cartilage in your knee is almost gone. That’s mother nature telling you to hang up the running shoes and maybe hit the swimming pool. It’s all terribly cyclical: your elbow hurts from playing tennis, so you buy Aleve and get rid of the pain, without the pain you play tennis again, and playing tennis again further damages your elbow which brings the pain back, so you buy more Aleve…ad infinitum.
The human body is a wonderful machine capable of self repair, but that ability is limited. If you push your body beyond it’s natural healing abilities, you’re going to fuck shit up. And if you fuck up a joint or your spine there ain’t a whole lot we can do for you. The same thing goes with aging. By the virtue of being alive, your body will degenerate. For the time being, it’s inevitable that your body will decline in function and ability the older you get. Treating pain is treating a symptom–it is not treating the underlying disease processes, whether it’s aging, arthritis, or mechanical injury/stress.
Perhaps this attitude we have toward pain medication is rooted in our cultural attitude surrounding quick fixes. We’re a nation of pill poppers–“Is there a pill for that?” We’ve been conditioned by endless marketing to just expect certain things from medical science. Perhaps it has to do with our cultural obsession with youth. Everybody in this country is afraid to age. The prospect of getting older horrifies people. So when the first inkling of aging, say a touch of arthritis, develops they go straight into denial.
Getting older or losing functional ability isn’t a sentence to a life of boredom and sedentary activity. Maybe you swim or bike instead of run. Or maybe you only run a 5k instead of a half marathon. Maybe instead of that two day 20 mile backpacking trip you just do a 7 mile overnighter. Perhaps instead of tennis you take up yoga or dancing. Maybe you do a little rehabilitation before resuming physical activity instead of just guzzling pills everyday.