Does Ibuprofen Help Heal Injuries Faster?

Picture it: You are running and have an intense pain. Should you take ibuprofen for it? Will ibuprofen help heal an injury faster? No, in most cases, an NSAID like ibuprofen will not help heal an injury faster—in fact, it could hinder healing.

A couple of weeks ago I got an intense pain in my knee when running. When I finished my run, I could hardly walk. Turns out I had knee bursitis. I knew to ice and heat it, but wondered if taking ibuprofen could help heal my injury by reducing inflammation? Or would it inhibit the natural healing process?

Related: My Experience with Knee Bursitis

It’s kind of confusing. Sometimes you hear that taking anti-inflammatories can help. I mean after all, if the

Hand holding turquoise ibuprofen pill in front of a window.
In most cases, you should only take ibuprofen if you need it for pain.

problem is inflammation, why not take an anti-inflammatory? Other times you hear it hurts by interfering with your body’s own natural healing process.

Yet, doctors commonly tell us to rest our running injuries, ice, heat, and take NSAIDs like ibuprofen. What’s the deal?

To get clarity, I reached out to Todd McGrath, MD, primary sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Dr. McGrath answered all my questions about NSAIDs and injuries.

Specifically, in this article, I will answer:

  • What are NSAIDs and how do they work?
  • What are natural anti-inflammatories?
  • How long do NSAIDs last?
  • What running injuries should you take ibuprofen for?
  • Can ibuprofen help healing? Or do they inhibit the healing process?
  • What are the risks of taking NSAIDs for a running injury?
  • Should I take ibuprofen before, during, and/or after running?
  • A guide for taking NSAIDs for runners

 What are NSAIDs and how do they work?

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs or anti-inflammatories, are an over-the-counter pain reliever such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen that also helps reduce inflammation and fevers. NSAIDs can also prevent blood from clotting.

NSAIDs or anti-inflammatories work by preventing an enzyme called cyclooxygenase, or COX, from doing its job. COX-2 is produced from injury or aggravation. COX-1 protects the stomach lining from acids and digestive chemicals and maintains kidney function.

NSAIDs block both COX-1 and COX-2 which is why they can ease pain and inflammation but also upset your stomach.

What are natural inflammatories?

Pin about NSAIDs and running injuries in yellow and orange and pill bottle.
Pin these tips about ibuprofen for injuries for later!

There are plenty of foods that have natural inflammatory properties such as olive oil, berries, fish, vegetables, spirulina, and spices such as turmeric and ginger.

There are also foods such as refined carbs and sugary foods that can lead to inflammation in the body. Avoid eating these to help reduce inflammation in the body.

If you are dealing with an injury, shifting your diet to include foods that reduce inflammation may help arm your body with what it needs to heal faster. Learn more about what to eat here.

Related: What to Eat to Heal Your Injury

What do you use NSAIDs for?

NSAIDs are commonly used to treat muscle aches, arthritis, bursitis, dental pain, pain caused by gout, and menstrual cramps.

How long does it take NSAIDs to work?

In most cases, NSAIDs start working within an hour. However, it does depend on what the pain meds are treating for how long it takes to work.

For example, if you are suffering from an acute pain like a muscle strain, tendonitis, or bursitis, you should start to feel pain relief in about a half hour.

If you are treating a chronic condition such as arthritis, it may take longer to feel pain relief from NSAIDs.

Related: Can Taking Collagen Heal Injuries?

How long do NSAIDs last?

Most NSAIDs are effective for four to eight hours. They do not permanently decrease inflammation, only as long as they are in the body.

However, in some cases such as bursitis or early tendonitis, NSAIDs can stop your body’s inflammatory response and potentially prevent long term structural changes. This is when the problem is early inflammation and not a muscle/tendon tear or bone injury, explains Dr. McGrath. 

Most NSAIDs are effective for four to eight hours. They do not permanently decrease inflammation, only as long as they are in the body.

However, in some cases such as bursitis or tendonitis, NSAIDs can stop your body’s inflammatory response where there isn’t something to actually heal (like a tear or break).

What dosage of NSAIDs should I take?

For the analgesic benefit, Dr. McGrath recommends taking 400 mg of ibuprofen with food every 4-6 hours. It is rarely indicated to take higher dosages than that, he says.

Related: How I Stopped Being an Injury-Prone Runner

When should a runner take an NSAID for a running injury?

Dr. McGrath recommends taking ibuprofen or another NSAID for pain relief of muscle injuries if acetaminophen does not help.

The reason he recommends taking a pain med like acetaminophen (Tylenol) first is that an NSAID poses risks to your recovery, liver, and stomach. (More on this below).  

Running injuries you SHOULD NOT take NSAIDS:

NSAIDs pin with person holding hurt knee and pain meds.
Pin these tips about ibuprofen for injuries for later!
  • Acute injury. The anti-inflammatory could block the body’s natural cascade of healing properties. Let your body do its thing.
  • Bone injury. There is research that shows NSAIDs can slow or alter bone healing.
  • Tendon injury. Some studies show a benefit to collagen synthesis with NSAIDs, which is involved in tendon healing, notes Dr. McGrath.  However, other research shows that tendon quality is not as good when NSAIDs are used to alter the inflammatory cascade associated with tendon injury.

Running injuries you SHOULD take NSAIDS:

  • Some muscle injuries. There is some evidence to support using NSAIDs for muscle injuries such as large muscle tears with a hematoma.  Occasionally these injuries can lead to a condition called myositis ossificans in which calcium can coalesce into a ‘stone’ within the muscle as the hematoma resolves.  NSAIDs have been shown to possibly decrease the rate of myositis ossificans when taken after a large muscle injury. 
  • Bursitis and tendonitis. In straightforward inflammatory cases such as bursitis or tendonitis in which there is no tissue damage, NSAIDs may help reduce

So, does ibuprofen help heal injuries?

In most cases, taking an NSAID like ibuprofen will not help heal an injury by reducing inflammation. Instead, taking an NSAID can help manage your pain while your body works to heal your injury.

Related: How to Return to Running After an Injury 

Does taking ibuprofen inhibit healing?

Yes, taking ibuprofen could inhibit your body’s natural healing process which begins with inflammation.

Swelling, or inflammation, signals to the body that there is an injury that needs your body’s help in being healed. Inflammation becomes a problem when it lingers longer than it should. Inflammation should start to decrease in about a week. If it doesn’t, you should see a doctor.

For this reason, Dr. McGrath cautions against using NSAIDs for running injuries, particularly bone injuries.

“The inflammatory cascade is the body’s response to injury and, although often painful, is an important aspect of healing in most circumstances,” he says. “More and more evidence shows that NSAIDs can slow or alter bone healing which can affect return to running after bone stress injuries.”

Related: Injury Before a Marathon? Here’s What to Do!

What are the risks of taking ibuprofen for a running injury?

Graphic with info about ibuprofen for runners
In most cases, runners should only take ibuprofen for pain.

There are several potential risks of taking ibuprofen for a running injury including interfering with healing, stomach irritation, kidney issues, and heart attack.

Related: Do PRP Injections Work to Heal Injuries? 

Specifically, the risks of taking NSAIDs for a running injury include:

  1. Potential negative effects on tissue healing. There is some research that shows that NSAIDs inhibit the healing of bone injuries and robust healing of tendons.
  2. NSAID use can cause stomach irritation and gastritis.  NSAIDs can alter the blood flow to your intestine. This can increase the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding, alter absorption of nutrients and fluids, and potentially increase systemic inflammation from absorption of toxins as your GI tract lining is disrupted, says Dr. McGrath.
  3. NSAID use after intense exercise could lead to kidney failure. According to Dr. McGrath, NSAIDs can decrease blood flow to your kidneys which are vital for clearing the byproducts of intense exercise in our blood. Creatine kinase (CK) is a byproduct of muscle breakdown that can build up with prolonged exercise. Failure to clear CK adequately can lead to a condition called rhabdomyolysis which can lead to kidney failure.  Dehydrated states, which can occur easily with running, can hasten the risk of rhabdomyolysis.
  4. NSAID use could cause a heart attack or even death. Taking an NSAID like ibuprofen during exercise has been linked to an increase in risk of heart attack, sudden cardiac death, and overall exercise-related mortality, according to Dr. McGrath.

Can I take ibuprofen when running?

A lot of runners take ibuprofen when running to stop pain when running—especially long distance. I remember tucking some ibuprofen into my shorts for my first marathon—just in case. I’m glad I never took it because taking ibuprofen while running can be dangerous.

Many runners think that taking ibuprofen during running will stop pain before it starts. However, taking ibuprofen during exericise may irritate your stomach, lead to rhabdomyolysis and kidney failure, heart attack, sudden cardiac death, and overall exercise-related mortality.

Even still, a study of endurance athletes who took NSAIDs before intense exercise didn’t think it helped relieve pain anyway.

Should I take ibuprofen before I run for pain?

Hand holding two blue pills in front of bathroom tile.
Runners should think twice before taking NSAIDs before, during, or after a run.

No, you should not take ibuprofen before you run for risks related to your heart, kidneys, and stomach.

If you are taking ibuprofen before running, that begs the question: should you be running? Or should you be resting? If you are taking a pain-reliever to blunt the pain of an injury, your body is clearly telling you it’s not ready to start running.

Does taking ibuprofen after running relieve sore muscles?

You should not take ibuprofen after running as it can inhibit your recovery. Taking an NSAID decreases blood flow to your kidneys at a time when your kidneys have hard work to do.

Your kidneys need to clear the byproducts from exercise like Creatine Kinase. If it doesn’t do this, your recovery will be decreased and you are risk for kidney failure.

Key Takeaways of Taking Ibuprofen for Runners

  • Avoid taking ibuprofen for injuries unless you need it to manage the pain.
  • NSAIDs do not help heal injuries and do not permanently decrease inflammation of most injuries.
  • Use of anti-inflammatories for bursitis and tendonitis can help relieve pain and possibly rid the inflammation.
  • Anti-inflammatories can inhibit healing in some injuries, especially bone.
  • Taking NSAIDs before, during, and after running come with great risks that include kidney failure, severe stomach irritation, heart attack, and even death.

So, did I end up taking NSAIDs? I took ibuprofen for my bursitis to help me sleep at night. After a week of rest and icing, it was better! I do not think taking ibuprofen helped heal my injury—I think the time off did.

If you want guidance with your run training, including strength training, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:



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