What do you do when you have a headache that just won’t go away, or a sudden wave of period cramps so intense you can’t physically sit upright? Reach for the bottle of NSAIDs you keep with you at all times, obviously.
NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, include some of the most popular over-the-counter painkillers. Sure, they can have side effects, but taken properly, they’re pretty tame.
And yet, a small pool of research claims taking NSAIDs may have an unintended consequence—at least during certain times of the month.
Last week at a medical conference in Europe, a group of researchers from the University of Baghdad presented a study linking NSAID use to disruption in a woman’s menstrual cycle. This disruption, said the researchers, may prevent women from ovulating. Or put simply: taking NSAIDs may result in temporary infertility.
The study used an admittedly small sample size of 39 women, who took one of three NSAIDs or a placebo pill. The NSAIDs included naproxen (found in Aleve), diclofenac (which requires a prescription) and etoricoxib (which isn't available in the U.S.). Note that while all NSAIDs rely on a similar process of pain inhibition, their effects—side effects—can differ from drug to drug and person to person.
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Researchers then tracked these women's ovulation, and found that women who took the placebo pills ovulated 100 percent of the time, versus women in the NSAID group, who ovulated at significantly lower rates.
“Our study proved that taking these drugs for continuous periods during the time of ovulation—i.e. 10-12 days from the beginning of the menses for merely 10 days—does reduce the ovulation,” Sami Salman, the lead researcher on the study, told Fusion in an email.
Waaaaait a minute. Does that mean that the NSAID you’re reaching for could function as a cheap, over-the-counter birth control pill? Woah, if true! This could (possibly) be huge news—especially given the fact that there’s been a recent push to make birth control pills available over-the-counter in this country. If NSAIDs really work this way, there’s no need for new legislation—just start tracking your ovulation and swallow a bunch of Aleve for a week in the middle of your cycle.
It does seem suspicious, though, that something this potentially life-altering could slip through the cracks, completely unblogged. Curious about the validity of this study, and others that came before it showing similar effects, Fusion talked with Jamie Grifo, a noted fertility specialist and program director of the New York University Fertility Center.
“These medicines can play a role in influencing ovulation, and for people trying to get pregnant, use them only as medically necessary,” Grifo said. “But are they contraception? I doubt it.”
As Grifo explained, women trying to get pregnant should generally avoid all non-essential meds—anything that could potentially alter the very delicate process that is the menstrual cycle may decrease chances of getting pregnant. But the odds that the recommended dosage of Aleve you take is making you infertile is pretty slim—there’s just not enough research yet to justify adding “possible infertility” as a side effect on the bottle.
(Note that the women in the study who took the equivalent of Aleve took a slightly higher dose daily—1,000 milligrams, compared to 400 to 600 milligrams.)
This inconclusiveness stems, in part, from the fact that we still aren’t quite sure what all goes on down there during ovulation. As recently as 2006, Spanish researchers studying a similar phenomenon sought to explain if and why NSAIDs could be disrupting ovulation. It has a lot to do with enzymes and prostaglandins, they posit, but there’s isn’t yet a clear indication that definitively links painkillers and not ovulating.
“I don’t think we should be alarmist about it,” Grifo told Fusion. “If these were so good at preventing fertility, why haven’t they been marketed as contraception?” He has a point—if there was even the slightest possibility that something as easily accessible as Aleve was a method of preventing pregnancy, there probably wouldn’t be any left on pharmacy shelves.
Still, we'll be keeping an eye on these NSAIDs' fine print as more research is conducted.
Hannah Smothers is a reporter for Fusion's Sex & Life section, a Texpat, and a former homecoming princess.