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Do painkillers slow muscle growth?

One easy way to deal with the typical muscle soreness you feel after a difficult weight training workout is to take an over-the-counter painkiller. What many people don’t know, however, is that large amounts of these painkillers can actually inhibit the increase in protein synthesis that usually occurs after your workouts.  However, as with most things in life, it’s not that simple.

In order for muscle tissue to grow, protein synthesis must be greater than protein breakdown. As you know, when you work out, you create tiny tears in your muscle tissue and actually break the tissue down. It responds by creating more muscle tissue and adapting to the demand. Your goal is to end up with more synthesis than breakdown and thus, bigger muscles.

A study from the American Journal of Physiology examined a group of men assigned to three groups: a workout + ibuprofen (1200 mg), a workout + acetaminophen (4000 mg), and a placebo group that received a pill with no active ingredients. Participants took the drug three times per day.

When sample of their muscle tissue were analysed 24 hours after working out, those having received the painkillers had a reduced level of muscle protein synthesis than that normally seen.

However, this study only looked at protein synthesis over a 24-hour period of taking painkillers. Another study from Ball State University’s Human Performance Lab also divided participants into three groups: an acetaminophen group, ibuprofen group, and placebo group. However, this study was done over a period of 3 months instead of just 24 hours. Interestingly, the results of this study showed that the participants receiving the painkillers had greater muscle protein synthesis than those not receiving them.

Study co-author Todd A Trappe from Ball State University said, “ It’s surprising. Over three months, the chronic consumption of ibuprofen or acetaminophen during resistance training appears to have induces intramuscular changes that enhance the metabolic response to resistance exercise. This allows the body to add substantially more new protein to muscle.”

So should you run out and buy cartons of painkillers? Not so fast. While the occasional use of painkillers in appropriate dosages isn’t likely to harm your fitness programme or your health, chronic use of painkillers has been associated with a range of other health problems. Research is ongoing into the effects of painkillers on many of our vital organs and on our health overall. For now, the differences in muscle protein synthesis don’t merit the risk to your health from taking such high doses of over-the-counter painkillers.

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