NSAIDs have anti-inflammatory (reduce inflammation), analgesic (relieve pain) and antipyretic (lower temperature) effects. Although different NSAIDs have different structures, they all work by blocking cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes. There are two main types of COX enzymes: COX-1 and COX-2. Both types produce prostaglandins; however, the main function of COX-1 enzymes is to produce baseline levels of prostaglandins that activate platelets and protect the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, whereas COX-2 enzymes are responsible for releasing prostaglandins after infection or injury. Prostaglandins have a number of different effects, one of which is to regulate inflammation. Most NSAIDs inhibit both enzymes, although a few are available that mainly inhibit COX-2. The pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects of NSAIDs are mainly due to inhibition of COX-2, and their unwanted side effects are largely due to inhibition of COX-1.
However, it should be remembered that the inflammatory or 'lag phase' is the first stage of the healing process and a degree of pain and loss of function may be helpful to prevent the athlete doing further damage to the injured part. The question of whether NSAIDs have an adverse effect on healing was examined by Obremsky et al (1994) and Almekinders (1986). Both studies showed no significant effect on tensile strength recovery following NSAID treatment for muscle strain injury, and Obremsky et al (1994) further demonstrated that muscular force was also unaltered. However, both studies showed histologic evidence of delayed healing with NSAID use, although it should be stated that both studies utilised animal models.
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