Ibuprofen Kills

New research suggests that ibuprofen and similar over-the-counter pain medications do as much damage as prescription painkillers such as the now infamous Vioxx. With or without a prescription, these non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs have long been suspect for suppressing the body’s natural response to inflammatory assaults from injury and disease processes.

As the GreenMedInfo website sensibly asks, why not use alternatives that don’t give you a stroke or an ulcer? Such alternatives include the homeopathic remedy arnica and the analgesic herb skullcap and many more that have been shown to be as effective as ibuprofen.

And as GreenMedInfo also sensibly observes, we’re going about this in the wrong way. If you need an anti-inflammatory drug for pain, why not treat the thing that’s causing the inflammation?

Those are both good questions that deserve careful answers.

It is too easy to say that pain management is big business and leave it at that. That pain and its treatment are deeply embedded in commercial institutions is a problem. But homeopathic remedies and medicinal herbs are also objects of commerce—just not objects with the allure of a name brand.

Anyone can choose arnica instead of ibuprofen. Yet they don’t. By a very wide margin.

Some of that difference is explained by the much better funded marketing departments employed by manufacturers of over-the-counter painkillers. But that’s not all or even most of the explanation. In my opinion, large-scale institutional bias plays the principal role.

For example, physicians will commonly suggest ibuprofen instead of prescribe a drug if pressed. It’s unlikely that he or she will suggest arnica. It’s likely he or she doesn’t even know what arnica is. The physician is the delivery system for medical institutions that privilege certain kinds of remedy over others. Homeopathy is not part of those institutions.

This is fully reflected in information sources ranging from waiting room magazines to mainstream news to disease support organizations to government health agencies. Even alternative information sources reinforce the dominance of medical institutions by focusing on the equity issues instead of the substantive issues—for example, by attempting to make sure that everyone has equal access to the current system of medical care without questioning the actual content of that care.

That’s why I think institutions that privilege information make it much more likely that you’ll pop into the drugstore and buy some ibuprofen instead of arnica when you’re in pain. I also think it explains why you’re not likely to think about or be encouraged to think about eliminating what’s causing the pain in the first place.

Allopathic medicine, the form of medicine that dominates medical and health institutions, focuses on suppressing symptoms rather than unraveling the conditions that cause those symptoms to erupt. So when we suffer pain, the path along which we are guided leads you to a drugstore analgesic such as ibuprofen. We are guided thus by the operation of institutions—sometimes subtly, sometimes not—that create an environment in which ibuprofen is normal for pain and arnica is not.

Changing the operation of one institution—say, media reporting on alternative remedies—is helpful but likely wouldn’t change much. Media institutions would be different, but not commercial or government or organizational institutions.

And yet there are people who do choose arnica over ibuprofen. That might be explained by personal idiosyncrasies, but from my perspective they’ve been buffered from those insidious institutional forces. Most people do not have that buffer. It is a triumph of the capitalist mode of production to have swept away those buffers for the sake of embracing everyone to the bosom modern civilization.

The buffer is localism, a community of interest, a community of self-care. I’ll give you an example.

In a Counterpunch article about gun control, medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes writes about the torments that await people branded as mentally ill and therefore automatically considered dangerous. She contrasts this with what she calls therapeutic villages.

For 700 years, the citizens of Geel in Belgium have treated those we’d label as mentally ill as “visible members of the community....” They are taken as boarders and integrated into families.

A visitor to Geel described how “a boarder became visibly agitated and increasingly hostile and aggressive on a city street. As if on cue, townspeople assembled to the location and surrounded the disturbed man.” The visitor went on to say, “They were creating a secure circle around him. It seemed as if they were performing a ballet, dancing around the person who, in short order, became quiet and allowed his caretaker family to lead him home for a cup of cocoa and a good nap.”