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Can NSAIDs Block Muscle Gains?
Before reaching for a pain reliever after a hard workout, consider its possible effects on your recovery
If you’re like some lifters, days aren’t measured by Mondays, Tuesdays, and so on, but by arm day, chest day, leg day, and the like. Hump day is always whichever day legs fall on because once you clear that hurdle, everything coming is a breeze by comparison.
One by-product of a good leg workout is the delicious post-workout soreness—called delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS—the kind that makes walking up a pair of stairs feel so good. And sometimes, perhaps not. That soreness can in fact linger for a few days, which may tempt you into taking an over-the-counter pain reliever or anti-inflammatory.
Sounds reasonable so far; sports-medicine practitioners and athletes have taken non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin or ibuprofen, which are popular choices to minimize pain and inflammation after sprains, strains, and other acute soft-tissue injuries.
NSAIDs are classified in different ways, not only by whether they’re over-the-counter or prescription drugs but also by chemical structure and the drug’s half-life (the time necessary to eliminate half of the ingested amount of drug from the body). As for what’s in various OTCs, check out the active ingredients in the sidebar.
Can NSAIDS Blunt Protein Synthesis?
According to research, using NSAIDs has some potential risks because they can produce significant side effects, including gastrointestinal and cardiovascular conditions as well as musculoskeletal and renal side effects.1
But there’s more, because the lifter must also weigh performance side effects. In a study of rat and mice models, researchers looked into the effects of taking ibuprofen on cyclooxygenase (COX) activity because it has been demonstrated that COX activity is a critical component of muscular hypertrophy.2Because drugs such as ibuprofen are classified as COX inhibitors and COX activity is a critical component of muscular hypertrophy, a clear link has been established: Ibuprofeninhibitsmuscular hypertrophy. In another study, researchers demonstrated that COX activity is required for muscle growth possibly through facilitation of extracellular protease activity, macrophage accumulation, and cell proliferation.3Hence, taking a drug that inhibits COX may very well be counterproductive for muscle gains.
A 2002 human study was the first to find NSAIDs blunted protein synthesis in humans.4But other, later studies didn’t make that finding.5–8
Let’s remember these studies are typically done with untrained individuals, so that can skew how the results might affect a highly trained athlete. What’s more, acute changes may not reflect long-term adaptations with muscular hypertrophy.
No doubt there’s a time and place to use NSAIDs, but they should be taken with caution, in relatively moderate dosages, and for short periods of time. A review of the practical management of NSAIDs in athletic injuries determined that NSAIDs aren’t recommended in the treatment of chronic muscle injuries or completed fractures or stress fractures.9The authors recommended NSAIDs for the management of acute ligament strains, muscle strains, tendinitis, and eccentric muscle injury, but they cautioned that the prescription of the NSAID should be judicious and the length of treatment should be kept as short as possible.
NSAIDS can help with short-term pain management, but their use should be avoided not only because of their potential long-term side effects but also because of their possible effects on making gains in muscle mass.