R eview A rticle
June 17, 1999
The New England Journal of Medicine
, M.D., D
From the Section of Gastroenterology, Boston University School of
Medicine and Boston Medical Center, Boston (M.M.W., D.R.L.); and the
Division of Immunology and Rheumatology, Stanford University School
of Medicine, Palo Alto, Calif. (G.S.). Address reprint requests to Dr. Wolfe
at the Boston Medical Center, Section of Gastroenterology, 88 E. Newton
St., Boston, MA 02118-2393, or at email@example.com.
©1999, Massachusetts Medical Society.
NE hundred years have passed since Felix
Hoffman, working at Bayer Industries, re-
ported the successful synthesis of acetylsali-
cylic acid as the first nonsteroidal antiinflammatory
At the suggestion of Hermann
Dreser, Bayer’s chief pharmacologist at the time,
compound was called “aspirin” and was purported
to represent a convenient mechanism for the delivery
of salicylic acid in the treatment of rheumatic diseas-
es, menstrual pain, and fever.
elapsed before Douthwaite and Lintott
endoscopic evidence that aspirin could cause gastric
mucosal damage. Numerous reports have corrobo-
rated this observation, and the introduction of more
potent agents with an even greater propensity for
toxic effects has increased the awareness of NSAID-
induced gastroduodenal ulcer and provided impetus
for the development of effective NSAIDs with a more
favorable safety profile.
Starting in the early 1970s, numerous new NSAIDs
were developed that were initially believed to be de-
void of gastrointestinal toxicity, but few, if any, are
entirely harmless. These agents constitute one of the
most widely used classes of drugs, with more than
70 million prescriptions and more than 30 billion
over-the-counter tablets sold annually in the United
States. Although NSAIDs are generally well tolerat-
ed, adverse gastrointestinal events occur in a small
but important percentage of patients, resulting in
substantial morbidity and mortality.
Approximately 40 years
EPIDEMIOLOGY OF GASTROINTESTINAL
Because of the broad and nonspecific definitions
of gastrointestinal disorders caused by the use of
NSAIDs, as well as differences in patient populations,
drugs, dosages, and periods of use, estimates of the
prevalence of adverse effects vary greatly. In general,
at least 10 to 20 percent of patients have dyspepsia
while taking an NSAID, although the prevalence
may range from 5 to 50 percent.
month period of treatment, 5 to 15 percent of pa-
tients with rheumatoid arthritis can be expected to
discontinue NSAID therapy because of dyspepsia.
According to prospective data from the Arthritis,
Rheumatism, and Aging Medical Information Sys-
tem (ARAMIS), 13 of every 1000 patients with
rheumatoid arthritis who take NSAIDs for one year
have a serious gastrointestinal complication. The risk
in patients with osteoarthritis is somewhat lower
(7.3 per 1000 patients per year).
The rate of NSAID-related serious gastrointestinal
complications requiring hospitalization has decreased
in recent years. The decrease may be due, at least in
part, to extensive medical-education campaigns that
have persuaded physicians to use newer, less toxic
NSAIDs and non-NSAID analgesics in populations
at high risk.
The mortality rate among patients who are hospi-
talized for NSAID-induced upper gastrointestinal
bleeding is about 5 to 10 percent.
data from ARAMIS has shown that the mortality
rate attributed to NSAID-related gastrointestinal tox-
ic effects is 0.22 percent per year, with an annual
relative risk of 4.21 as compared with the risk for
persons not using NSAIDs.
mortality rate is low, it must be emphasized that be-
cause a large number of patients are exposed to
NSAIDs, often for extended periods of time, the risk
over a lifetime is substantial. In the United States,
for instance, it is estimated that NSAIDs are used
regularly by at least 13 million people with various
arthritides. On the basis of these conservative figures
and ARAMIS data, the annual number of hospital-
izations in the United States for serious gastrointes-
tinal complications is estimated to be at least 103,000.
At an estimated cost of $15,000 to $20,000 per hos-
pitalization, the annual direct costs of such compli-
cations exceed $2 billion.
It has been estimated conservatively that 16,500
NSAID-related deaths occur among patients with
rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis every year in
the United States. This figure is similar to the num-
ber of deaths from the acquired immunodeficiency
Within a six-
An analysis of
Although the annual
Volume 340Number 24
syndrome and considerably greater than the number
of deaths from multiple myeloma, asthma, cervical
cancer, or Hodgkin’s disease (Fig. 1).
from gastrointestinal toxic effects of NSAIDs were
tabulated separately in the National Vital Statistics
reports, these effects would constitute the 15th most
common cause of death in the United States. Yet
these toxic effects remain largely a “silent epidemic,”
with many physicians and most patients unaware of
the magnitude of the problem.
mortality statistics do not include deaths ascribed to
the use of over-the-counter NSAIDs.
In a recent survey of 4799 Americans, 807 were
identified who had taken NSAIDs (prescribed or
over-the-counter drugs) at least twice in the past
year for five or more consecutive days.
mately 45 percent of the group took NSAIDs for
five or more consecutive days at least once per month,
and 40 percent took both over-the-counter and pre-
scribed NSAIDs. Nearly 75 percent of those who
used NSAIDs regularly were either unaware of or
unconcerned about possible gastrointestinal compli-
cations. In addition, almost two thirds of the regular
users indicated that they would expect warning signs
before the development of serious NSAID-induced
complications. Only a minority of patients who have
serious gastrointestinal complications report any an-
tecedent dyspepsia. In a study of patients with
serious gastrointestinal complications, Singh et al.
found that although the proportion of patients with
prior symptoms was only slightly higher than the
proportion with no prior symptoms (2.7 percent vs.
2.0 percent), 81 percent of the patients reported no
RISK FACTORS FOR GASTROINTESTINAL
Because dyspeptic symptoms are not a reliable warn-
ing sign, it is important to identify factors that in-
crease the risk of serious gastrointestinal complica-
tions and to determine methods for reducing this
risk. A number of studies have been designed to
identify patients who are most likely to have adverse
effects of NSAID therapy (Table 1).
Advanced age has been consistently found to be a
primary risk factor for adverse gastrointestinal events.
The risk increases linearly with age.
previous reports suggested that the risk diminishes
over time, a recent study indicates that the risk of
NSAID-associated gastrointestinal hemorrhage re-
mains constant over an extended period of observa-
tion. Other risk factors that have been identified in
multiple studies are higher doses of NSAIDs (in-
cluding the use of two or more NSAIDs), a history
of gastroduodenal ulcer or gastrointestinal bleeding,
concomitant use of corticosteroids, serious coexist-
ing conditions, and concomitant use of anticoagu-
lants. However, many of these studies are based
on univariate analysis and do not consider the inter-
actions among multiple factors and coexisting con-
The identification of
as a factor in the development of peptic ulcer has
raised the question of a possible synergistic relation
between the presence of
NSAID use. Although several studies
these two factors to be independent, two prospec-
tive studies have suggested a synergistic relation. Bi-
anchi Porro et al.
used the combination of amox-
icillin and omeprazole to treat NSAID users infected
A total of 16,500 patients with rheumatoid arthritis or osteo-
arthritis died from the gastrointestinal toxic effects of NSAIDs.
Data are from the National Center for Health Statistics and the
Arthritis, Rheumatism, and Aging Medical Information System.
U.S. Mortality Data for Seven Selected Disorders in 1997.
Cause of Death
No. of Deaths
*Information on risk factors is from Singh and
Gabriel et al.,
man et al., Garcia Rodriguez and Jick,
Silverstein et al.,
Shorr et al., and Barkin.
Griffin et al.,
Hochain et al.,
Established risk factors
Advanced age (linear increase in risk)
History of ulcer
Concomitant use of corticosteroids
Higher doses of NSAIDs, including the use of more
than one NSAID
Concomitant administration of anticoagulants
Serious systemic disorder
Possible risk factors
Concomitant infection with
Consumption of alcohol
June 17, 1999
The New England Journal of Medicine
However, six months after the end of combination
therapy, the cumulative rate of recurrent ulcers was
31 percent among the patients in whom
had been eradicated and 46 percent among those
who were still infected. This difference was not sta-
Chan et al. found that the use of a regimen that
included bismuth subcitrate to eradicate
significantly decreased the rate of ulcer development
associated with the use of naproxen. In this study,
gastroduodenal ulcers developed in 26 percent of
–infected persons, but in only 7 percent of
those in whom the organism had been eradicated.
The inclusion of bismuth in the drug regimen, how-
ever, makes the findings somewhat ambiguous, be-
cause bismuth can accumulate in the gastric mucosa
and stimulate prostaglandin synthesis.
ly, Hawkey et al.randomly assigned 285 patients
with current ulcers or a history of ulcers who were
using NSAIDs to combined treatment with omepra-
zole, clarithromycin, and amoxicillin or to treatment
with omeprazole alone. They found that the eradi-
did not affect the rate of recur-
rent ulcer; in addition, ulcer healing was impaired
even in the patients who were successfully treated
with antibiotics for
pears that infection with
of gastroduodenal mucosal injury associated with
NSAID use only minimally, if at all.
Singh et al. recently proposed a simple, point-
based algorithm that patients and their physicians
can use to estimate the risk of an NSAID-related
gastrointestinal complication. If confirmed by other
investigators, this tool may help guide decisions about
prescriptions for specific NSAIDs, the use of prophy-
lactic agents, and the need for and frequency of pa-
did not affect the rate of ulcer healing.
They found that the eradication of
infection. It thus ap-
increases the risk
PATHOGENESIS OF NSAID-INDUCED
GASTRODUODENAL MUCOSAL INJURY
Gastroduodenal mucosal injury develops when the
deleterious effect of gastric acid overwhelms the nor-
mal defensive properties of the mucosa. Concepts
about NSAID-induced gastroduodenal mucosal inju-
ry have evolved from a simple notion of topical injury
to theories involving multiple mechanisms with both
local and systemic effects (Fig. 2). The systemic effects
are largely the result of the inhibition of endogenous
prostaglandin synthesis. Prostaglandin inhibition, in
turn, leads to decreases in epithelial mucus, secretion
of bicarbonate, mucosal blood flow, epithelial prolif-
eration, and mucosal resistance to injury.
pairment in mucosal resistance permits injury by en-
dogenous factors, including acid, pepsin, and bile
salts, as well as by exogenous factors such as NSAIDs
and possibly ethanol and other noxious agents.
Mucosal injury is initiated topically by the acidic
properties of aspirin and many other NSAIDs. Be-
cause of a low dissociation constant, which varies ac-
cording to the particular agent, these weak acids
remain in their nonionized lipophilic form in the high-
ly acidic gastric lumen. Such conditions favor migra-
tion through the gastric mucus across plasma mem-
branes and into surface epithelial cells, where NSAIDs
are dissociated into the ionized form, resulting in
trapping of hydrogen ions.
topical mucosal damage by diminishing the hydro-
phobicity of gastric mucus, thereby allowing endog-
enous gastric acid and pepsin to injure the surface
epithelium. In addition, topical mucosal injury may
occur as a result of indirect mechanisms, mediated
through the biliary excretion and subsequent duode-
nogastric reflux of active NSAID metabolites.
example, although sulindac is administered as a non-
toxic prodrug, its active metabolite, sulindac sulfide,
is excreted into the bile. On entry into the duode-
num, sulindac sulfide causes topical injury to the mu-
cosa by virtue of its acidic properties.
NSAIDs can also cause
The Role of Prostaglandins
Topical injury caused by NSAIDs contributes to
the development of gastroduodenal mucosal injury.
However, the systemic effects of these agents appear
to have the predominant role,
the decreased synthesis of mucosal prostaglandins.
The use of enteric-coated aspirin preparations
or rectal administration of NSAIDs in
order to prevent topical mucosal injury has also failed
to prevent the development of ulcers. Moreover,
doses of aspirin as low as 30 mg are sufficient to sup-
press prostaglandin synthesis in the gastric mucosa.
Prostaglandins are derived from arachidonic acid,
which originates from cell-membrane phospholipids
through the action of phospholipase A
metabolism of arachidonic acid to prostaglandins
and leukotrienes is catalyzed by the cyclooxygenase
pathway and the 5-lipoxygenase pathway, respective-
ly. Two related but unique isoforms of cyclooxy-
genase, designated cyclooxygenase-1 and cyclooxy-
genase-2, have been demonstrated in mammalian
cells. Despite their structural similarities, they are
encoded by distinct genes and differ with regard to
their distribution and expression in tissues.
cyclooxygenase-1 gene contains a promoter region
without a TATA sequence and is primarily expressed
constitutively. In contrast, the cyclooxygenase-2 gene
is thought to be the inducible form that is nearly un-
detectable in most (but not all) tissues under normal
Cyclooxygenase-1 appears to function as a “house-
keeping” enzyme in most tissues, including the gas-
tric mucosa, the kidneys, and the platelets, whereas
the expression of cyclooxygenase-2 can be induced
(Fig. 3). The
Volume 340Number 24
According to the dual-injury hypothesis of Schoen and Vender,
mucosa (solid arrows) and indirect effects through active hepatic metabolites and decreases in mucosal prostaglandins
(broken arrows). Hepatic metabolites are excreted into the bile and subsequently into the duodenum, where they cause
mucosal damage to the stomach by duodenogastric reflux and mucosal damage to the small intestine by antegrade pas-
sage through the gastrointestinal tract. Adapted from Schoen and Vender.
Mechanisms by Which NSAIDs Induce Gastroduodenal Mucosal Injury.
NSAIDs have direct toxic effects on the gastroduodenal
Decrease in gastric?
The immediate precursor of prostaglandins, arachidonic acid, is derived from membrane phospholip-
ids and is catalyzed by the two cyclooxygenase isoenzymes (also designated as prostaglandin H syn-
thase), cyclooxygenase-1 and cyclooxygenase-2. The gene for cyclooxygenase-1, the housekeeping en-
zyme, is expressed constitutively and maintains the homeostasis of organs, including gastric mucosal
integrity. In contrast, the gene for cyclooxygenase-2, the inflammatory enzyme, is inducible. Although
both pathways can be variably inhibited by different NSAIDs, only the gene for cyclooxygenase-2 con-
tains a corticosteroid-responsive repressor element in its promoter region. The broken arrows indicate
the inhibitory effects of pharmacologic agents.
Biosynthesis of Prostaglandins through the Cyclooxygenase Pathways.
Gastrointestinal mucosal integrity?
Mitogenesis and growth?
Regulation of female reproduction?
June 17, 1999
The New England Journal of Medicine
by inflammatory stimuli and mitogens in many dif-
ferent types of tissue, including macrophages and
synovial cells. It has thus been suggested that the
antiinflammatory properties of NSAIDs are mediat-
ed through the inhibition of cyclooxygenase-2, where-
as adverse effects, such as gastroduodenal ulceration,
occur as a result of effects on the constitutively ex-
rent strategies for developing NSAIDs with an im-
proved safety profile include the selective inhibition
of cyclooxygenase-2, with the sparing of cyclooxy-
Although there is substantial evidence that the sup-
pression of gastric prostaglandins is the fundamental
mechanism responsible for the gastrointestinal toxici-
ty of NSAIDs, some studies suggest that other mech-
anisms may be involved. For example, ulcers do not
develop spontaneously in mice with a disrupted cy-
and Wallace et al.
that NSAID-induced injury occurred in association
with enhanced adherence of neutrophils to the gastric
vascular endothelium, as the result of an increase in
the expression of intercellular adhesion molecule 1 in
the basal endothelium.
in turn, causes mucosal injury through the release of
oxygen-derived free radicals and proteases.
As discussed below, cur-
CLINICAL SPECTRUM OF INJURY
In the majority of patients, NSAID-induced gas-
troduodenal mucosal injury is superficial and self-lim-
ited. However, peptic ulcers develop in some patients,
and they may lead to gastroduodenal hemorrhage, per-
foration, and death. Serious complications of NSAID
use that are less commonly recognized include pill
esophagitis, small-bowel ulceration, small-bowel stric-
tures, colonic strictures, diverticular disease, and ex-
acerbations of inflammatory bowel disease.
The spectrum of NSAID-related gastroduodenal
injury includes a combination of subepithelial hemor-
rhages, erosions, and ulcerations that is often referred
to as NSAID gastropathy. The distinction between
erosions and ulcerations depends on pathological def-
initions, with ulcers defined as lesions that penetrate
to the level of the submucosa and erosions defined
as lesions confined to the mucosa. For practical
purposes, an endoscopic definition is used, which is
based on a subjective assessment of the size, shape,
and depth of the lesion. Erosions are likely to be
small and superficial, whereas ulcers tend to be larg-
er (more than 5 mm in diameter) and deeper.
After ingestion of an NSAID, ultrastructural dam-
age to the gastric surface epithelium occurs within
minutes, and gross, endoscopically detectable hem-
orrhages and erosions in the gastroduodenal epithe-
lium occur within several hours.59 However, mucosal
adaptation appears to occur in response to long-term
administration of aspirin in most persons.60,61 No
area of the stomach is resistant to NSAID-induced
mucosal injury; the most frequently and severely
affected site is the gastric antrum.59 Although the
prevalence and severity of acute injury vary accord-
ing to the drug formulation,62-64 the acute injury
commonly observed during short-term administra-
tion of NSAIDs is not closely correlated with the
subsequent development of the more clinically rele-
vant process of mucosal ulceration20,21,65,66 or with
serious complications.10,67,68 Duodenal mucosal inju-
ry occurs less commonly than gastric damage; how-
ever, ulcer complications associated with NSAIDs oc-
cur with nearly equal frequency in these two sites.51,66
Prospective, cross-sectional endoscopic studies have
shown that the combined prevalence of gastric and
duodenal ulcers is 10 to 25 percent in patients with
chronic arthritis treated with NSAIDs,10,67 which is
5 to 15 times the expected prevalence in an age-
matched healthy population.
TREATMENT OF NSAID-RELATED
At least 10 to 20 percent of patients have dyspep-
tic symptoms during NSAID therapy.10,11 However,
such symptoms are poorly correlated with the endo-
scopic appearance and severity of mucosal injury,
since up to 40 percent of persons with endoscopic
evidence of erosive gastritis are asymptomatic,10,68 and
conversely, as many as 50 percent of patients with
dyspepsia have normal-appearing mucosa.10
Histamine H2–Receptor Antagonists
Several studies using different methods have shown
an improvement in dyspeptic symptoms when hista-
mine H2–receptor antagonists are given to patients
taking NSAIDs.69-73 A recent prospective, observa-
tional cohort study by Singh et al.,11 however, found
that asymptomatic patients with rheumatoid arthri-
tis who were taking H2-receptor antagonists had a
significantly higher risk of gastrointestinal complica-
tions than those not taking these drugs. The expla-
nation for this surprising observation is unknown,
but it might be due to the masking of dyspeptic
symptoms associated with mucosal injury. There-
fore, although H2-receptor antagonists are effective
in reducing NSAID-related dyspepsia, their routine
use in asymptomatic patients taking NSAIDs cannot
be recommended. Patients receiving H2-receptor an-
tagonists for the treatment of dyspepsia must be
monitored carefully for the development of serious
complications. The initial dose should generally be
low (e.g., 400 mg of cimetidine, 150 mg of raniti-
dine or nizatidine, or 20 mg of famotidine, admin-
istered twice daily in each case), and the dose should
be tailored to the needs of each patient.
In two recent studies, the proton-pump inhibitor
omeprazole was compared with ranitidine74 or mi-
Volume 340Number 24
soprostol,75 a prostaglandin E1 analogue, for the
treatment and prevention of NSAID-related gastro-
duodenal ulcers. A secondary goal in both of these
multicenter trials was to assess the effects of therapy
on dyspeptic symptoms. In both studies, although
different methods were used to assess the clinical re-
sponse, omeprazole provided greater symptomatic
relief. After four weeks, only 6 percent of patients
treated with omeprazole had moderate-to-severe
symptoms, as compared with 52 percent at base line,
whereas 12 percent of those treated with ranitidine
had such symptoms, as compared with 50 percent at
base line.74 A quality-of-life evaluation showed that
the patients receiving omeprazole had significantly
greater improvement in scores on the Gastrointesti-
nal Symptom Rating Scale than the patients receiv-
ing misoprostol.75 Because proton-pump inhibitors
represent a suitable means of preventing the devel-
opment of gastroduodenal ulcers associated with the
use of NSAIDs,76 they appear to provide a safe and
effective form of therapy for NSAID-associated dys-
MANAGEMENT OF NSAID-RELATED
The optimal treatment for patients with NSAID-
induced gastroduodenal ulcers should include the
elimination of any potentially aggravating factors.
Nontoxic analgesics such as acetaminophen should
be substituted for NSAIDs when possible, and in
patients with inflammatory arthritides, disease-mod-
ifying (or slow-acting) antirheumatic drugs have been
recommended as first-line treatment. If NSAID ther-
apy is discontinued, effective treatment aimed at heal-
ing the acute ulcer can be instituted with one of sev-
eral antisecretory agents or with sucralfate. If the use
of NSAIDs must be continued, ulcer healing is en-
tirely dependent on the specific agent chosen for ul-
Mucosal Protective Agents
Sucralfate, a basic aluminum salt of sucrose octa-
sulfate, is effective in the treatment of both NSAID-
related duodenal ulcers and those unrelated to
NSAIDs, and the agent appears to be as effective
as H2-receptor antagonists in the healing of non–
NSAID-related gastric ulcers.77 However, sucralfate
has no proven benefit in the treatment or prevention
of NSAID-related gastric ulcers. Prostaglandins exert
their therapeutic effects both by enhancing mucosal
defensive properties and by inhibiting gastric-acid se-
cretion.39 Although they are effective in preventing
NSAID-induced gastroduodenal mucosal injury, their
role in the treatment of NSAID-associated ulcers is
unclear. Hawkey et al.75 recently compared the ca-
pacity of misoprostol (200 µg given four times daily)
and omeprazole (20 mg or 40 mg given once daily)
to heal gastroduodenal ulcers in patients receiving on-
going NSAID therapy. After eight weeks of therapy,
89 percent of the patients with duodenal ulcers who
received omeprazole at either dose had healing, as
compared with only 77 percent of those with duo-
denal ulcers who received misoprostol. Among the pa-
tients with gastric ulcers, healing was detected in 80
percent of those receiving 40 mg of omeprazole, in
87 percent of those receiving 20 mg of omeprazole,
and in 73 percent of those receiving misoprostol.75
The efficacy of H2-receptor antagonists in the treat-
ment of NSAID-related ulcers has not been assessed
extensively. Both open, uncontrolled, nonrandom-
ized studies78 and prospective, randomized studies79
have suggested that treatment with conventional dos-
es of H2-receptor antagonists for 6 to 12 weeks re-
sults in the healing of approximately 75 percent of
gastric ulcers (range, 50 to 88 percent) and 87 per-
cent of duodenal ulcers (range, 67 to 100 percent),
despite the continued use of NSAIDs. When the use
of NSAIDs is continued, healing appears to be de-
layed and is largely dependent on the initial size of
the ulcer. O’Laughlin et al.80 reported a 90 percent
healing rate for small gastric ulcers (less than 5 mm
in diameter) after an eight-week course of treatment
with cimetidine, whereas only 25 percent of larger
In a multicenter trial that included a small sub-
group of patients with NSAID-related gastric ulcers,
Walan et al.81 reported that among the patients who
continued to receive NSAIDs, the healing rate was
higher for those treated with omeprazole than for
those treated with ranitidine. A more recent multi-
center trial by Yeomans et al.74 also demonstrated
the superiority of omeprazole over ranitidine in the
treatment of NSAID-related gastroduodenal ulcers.
In this study, the rates of ulcer healing at eight weeks
were 79, 80, and 63 percent in the groups receiving
40 mg of omeprazole, 20 mg of omeprazole, and
150 mg of ranitidine twice a day, respectively. A study
by Agrawal et al.82 compared the efficacy of lanso-
prazole with that of ranitidine in the healing of gas-
tric ulcers during continued NSAID therapy. After
eight weeks, ulcers were healed in 57 percent of the
patients receiving 150 mg of ranitidine twice daily,
whereas ulcers were healed in 73 percent of those re-
ceiving 15 mg of lansoprazole once daily and 75 per-
cent of those receiving 30 mg of lansoprazole once
daily. These observations suggest that proton-pump
inhibitors can heal gastroduodenal ulcers more effec-
tively than H2-receptor antagonists, whether or not
NSAIDs are continued.
PREVENTION OF NSAID-ASSOCIATED
Because of the prevalence and severity of NSAID-
related gastrointestinal complications, recent efforts
June 17, 1999
The New England Journal of Medicine
have been directed at the prevention of mucosal in-
jury induced by NSAIDs. As discussed above, the
best way to prevent mucosal injury is to avoid the
use of NSAIDs and to substitute an agent less toxic
to the gastroduodenal mucosa, such as acetamino-
phen, salsalate, or magnesium salicylate. Neverthe-
less, a potent NSAID is commonly preferred, and two
strategies have been used to improve their safety: the
administration of concomitant medication to protect
the gastroduodenal mucosa from injury and the de-
velopment of safer antiinflammatory agents.
Early, small studies suggested that sucralfate might
reduce gastroduodenal mucosal injury associated with
the use of NSAIDs.83 However, a large, controlled,
randomized trial conducted by Agrawal et al.84 showed
no significant benefit of sucralfate in preventing gas-
tric ulcers in patients with osteoarthritis who were
receiving NSAID therapy.
Two large, placebo-controlled, prospective trials in-
vestigated the protective effect of ranitidine in pa-
tients with arthritis who were receiving NSAID ther-
apy.85,86 Ranitidine (150 mg given twice a day) was
effective in preventing duodenal ulcers, which devel-
oped in 0 percent and 1.5 percent of the ranitidine-
treated patients in the two studies, as compared with
8 percent of the placebo-treated patients in both
studies. In contrast, the same dose of ranitidine was
ineffective in preventing gastric ulcers in both studies.
Taha et al.73 recently reported a benefit of high-dose
famotidine (40 mg given twice a day), as compared
with placebo, in preventing both gastric and duode-
nal ulcers in patients with arthritis who received
NSAIDs for 24 weeks. Symptomatic relief was also
observed in the group randomly assigned to famoti-
dine, but the benefit, although statistically signifi-
cant, was only moderate, and the cost of such doses
of H2-receptor antagonists is considerable. Thus, the
use of H2-receptor antagonists for the prevention of
NSAID-associated ulcers cannot be recommended.
Although proton-pump inhibitors had previously
been demonstrated to heal gastroduodenal ulcers ef-
fectively in NSAID users,81 until recently only two
small studies87,88 had systematically examined their
effectiveness in preventing NSAID-related gastro-
duodenal mucosal injury. A recent study compared
omeprazole and ranitidine for the prevention of re-
current gastroduodenal ulcers in a large number of
patients with arthritis in whom NSAID therapy
could not be discontinued.74 After six months of
treatment, 16.3 percent of the patients treated with
ranitidine had gastric ulcers, and 4.2 percent had
duodenal ulcers. In the omeprazole group, only 5.2
percent of the patients had gastric ulcers, and only
0.5 percent had duodenal ulcers.74
Another recent study compared omeprazole (20
mg given once a day) and misoprostol (200 µg giv-
en twice a day) for the prevention of recurrent ulcers
in patients with arthritis who were receiving NSAID
therapy.75 After six months, 12 percent of the pa-
tients receiving placebo and 10 percent of those re-
ceiving misoprostol, but only 3 percent of those
receiving omeprazole, had duodenal ulcers. Gastric
ulcers recurred in 32 percent of the patients receiv-
ing placebo, in 10 percent of those receiving miso-
prostol, and in 13 percent of those receiving omep-
razole.75 These studies suggest that, like misoprostol,
proton-pump inhibitors are superior to H2-receptor
antagonists. Although a prospective analysis of clin-
ical outcomes has not been performed, these agents
appear to be effective in preventing the recurrence
of ulcers during continued use of NSAIDs.76
In their initial study, Graham et al.67 reported that
the prevalence of gastric ulcers in patients with os-
teoarthritis who were receiving NSAIDs was 1.4 per-
cent in those receiving concomitant treatment with
200 µg of misoprostol four times a day, 5.6 percent
in those receiving 100 µg of misoprostol four times
a day, and 21.7 percent in those receiving placebo.
The efficacy of misoprostol as prophylaxis against
duodenal ulcers was confirmed in a subsequent study
by Graham et al.89 Despite the effectiveness of miso-
prostol in preventing gastroduodenal ulcers, the agent
was not associated with any improvement in dyspep-
tic symptoms in these studies. Furthermore, diarrhea
developed in many of the patients receiving the 200-
µg dose of misoprostol. Raskin et al.90 compared
three regimens of misoprostol (200 µg given twice,
three times, or four times a day) and concluded that
although lower doses of misoprostol are better tol-
erated, the drug needs to be taken at least three
times a day to provide effective prophylaxis against
NSAID-induced gastric ulcers.
It must be emphasized that the prevention of en-
doscopically detectable ulcers as an end point is not
necessarily a safeguard against the development of
serious ulcer-related complications. To determine
whether treatment with misoprostol could affect the
incidence of ulcer complications caused by NSAID
use, Silverstein et al.24 conducted the Misoprostol
Ulcer Complication Outcomes Safety Assessment
(MUCOSA) study. They reported a 40 percent re-
duction in the overall rate of complications due to
NSAID-associated ulcers in a group of patients re-
ceiving 200 µg of misoprostol four times a day, as
compared with the patients receiving placebo.24
Although misoprostol is highly effective for pre-
venting NSAID-induced ulcers and is the only drug
Volume 340Number 24
approved by the Food and Drug Administration as
prophylaxis against NSAID-related gastroduodenal
ulcers, it has a number of adverse effects. These
include diarrhea and abdominal pain associated
with the increased generation of cyclic adenosine
monophosphate in the small intestine and increased
uterine contractility that can lead to spontaneous
Development of Safer NSAIDs
Several modifications in the formulation of NSAIDs
have been introduced in recent years to reduce their
toxicity. Recent surveillance and endoscopic studies
have confirmed that the incidence of gastroduodenal
mucosal injury is reduced with the use of nabume-
tone, etodolac, and meloxicam.91-93 The improved
safety of meloxicam appears to be due to its prefer-
ential inhibition of cyclooxygenase-2, with a minimal
effect on cyclooxygenase-1. In contrast, nabumetone
and etodolac appear to inhibit cyclooxygenase-2 pref-
erentially at low doses, but the preferential inhibition
of cyclooxygenase-2 is diminished at higher doses.
These agents also have other properties that contrib-
ute to their safety. Etodolac has a low level of en-
terohepatic recirculation and a short half-life; nabu-
metone is a nonacidic prodrug formulation and has
no enterohepatic recirculation.94
Highly Selective Cyclooxygenase-2 Inhibitors
Highly selective cyclooxygenase-2 inhibitors have
recently been developed that, in studies to date, have
had a markedly reduced capacity to cause injury to
the gastroduodenal mucosa.95-98 Two of the com-
pounds, celecoxib and rofecoxib, have been studied
extensively, and they appear to maintain their selec-
tivity for cyclooxygenase-2 at doses substantially
higher than those required to affect inflammation.
These agents are more than 100 times as selective in
their ability to inhibit cyclooxygenase-2 as the cur-
rently available NSAIDs and have been shown to
promote the development of gastroduodenal ulcers
at a rate not significantly different from that of pla-
cebo.99,100 The selectivity ratios for inhibition of cy-
clooxygenase-1 and cyclooxygenase-2 of celecoxib,
rofecoxib, and other agents have been determined
primarily by in vitro assays.101 Although these drugs
have similar in vivo selectivity, genetic differences
among patients may affect the cyclooxygenase-2 se-
lectivity of these drugs. Celecoxib became available
for use in the United States in February 1999, and
rofecoxib will probably be available very soon.
In spite of enthusiasm for these promising new
NSAIDs, some questions remain regarding their high-
ly selective inhibition of cyclooxygenase-2. For ex-
ample, cyclooxygenase-2 might generate endogenous
prostanoids that are biologically important (Fig. 3).
Mice in which the gene for cyclooxygenase-2 has
been disrupted have defects in renal function and
regulation of bone resorption, and female mice have
impaired reproductive physiology.94 Mizuno et al.102
have suggested that an increase in mucosal cycloox-
ygenase-2 expression may be necessary for the nor-
mal healing of gastroduodenal ulcers. However, non-
selective NSAIDs also inhibit cyclooxygenase-2 to
varying degrees, and the critical factor may be the
ratio of isoenzyme inhibition.
McAdam et al.103 recently reported that celecoxib,
but not ibuprofen, suppressed the urinary excretion
of prostacyclin in healthy subjects, whereas throm-
boxane activity related to cyclooxygenase-1 was sup-
pressed only by ibuprofen. The authors speculated
that long-term therapy with these agents might in-
crease the rate of thrombotic events in patients who
were at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, al-
though no data were collected on such events.103 On
a positive note, the expression of cyclooxygenase-2
messenger RNA is enhanced in human colorectal
adenomas and adenocarcinomas, and selective cyclo-
oxygenase-2 inhibition may thereby reduce the risk
of colorectal cancer.104 The results of these studies
indicate that although the highly selective cyclooxy-
genase-2 inhibitors offer considerable promise in the
treatment of inflammatory arthritides, careful sur-
veillance will be important to determine their ulti-
mate benefit and safety profile.
NSAIDs Containing Nitric Oxide
Nitric oxide has a critical role in maintaining the
integrity of the gastroduodenal mucosa, exerting
many of the same effects as endogenous prostaglan-
dins.105-107 It has even been suggested that nitric ox-
ide and prostaglandins may act synergistically to me-
diate mucosal protective effects,1 and Salvemini et
al.108 have demonstrated that nitric oxide stimulates
cyclooxygenase enzymes. Such redundancy in pre-
serving normal physiologic function is not unique,
and it constitutes the rationale for the development
of formulations in which nitric oxide is released and
compensates for the suppression of mucosal prosta-
glandins. Under these conditions, the desired effects
of NSAIDs are maintained, including the inhibition
of both cyclooxygenase isoenzymes, while toxicity
is minimized (Fig. 4).109-111 Nitric oxide–containing
compounds have antiinflammatory and antipyretic ac-
tivities that are similar to those of the parent com-
pound and may have analgesic effects that are great-
er than those of the parent compound.110
In a recent seven-day clinical trial, a flurbiprofen–
nitric oxide formulation was found to cause fewer
gastric erosions than the parent drug, with the same
inhibitory effects on gastric mucosal prostaglandin
synthesis and serum thromboxane levels.112 In addi-
tion, nitric oxide, like aspirin, inhibits platelet aggre-
gation, but it does not suppress cyclooxygenase ac-
tivity or cause gastric mucosal injury.113 The use of
nitric oxide–aspirin compounds as prophylaxis against
June 17, 1999
The New England Journal of Medicine
myocardial and cerebrovascular ischemia is also un-
Several other compounds are being developed, in-
cluding NSAIDs associated with zwitterionic phos-
pholipids, chiral NSAIDs, basic fibroblast growth
factor, and trefoil peptides.94 Although initial studies
indicate that some of these compounds may help re-
duce the gastrointestinal toxicity of NSAIDs, their
clinical use awaits further investigation.
Recommendations for the prevention and man-
agement of gastroduodenal mucosal injury associated
with NSAIDs are proposed in Table 2. Symptoms as-
sociated with the use of NSAIDs are common and can
generally be treated empirically with an H2-receptor
antagonist or a proton-pump inhibitor. Although ad-
ditional studies are necessary, eradication of H. pylori
should be reserved for patients with a history of
ulcer disease. In general, if a gastroduodenal ulcer
develops, the most prudent approach is to discontinue
Figure 4. Postulated Mechanism by Which Nitric Oxide–Releasing NSAIDs Maintain the Ability to Pro-
tect the Gastroduodenal Mucosa while Suppressing the Level of Endogenous Mucosal Prostaglandins.
Nitric oxide appears to stimulate some of the defensive properties of the mucosa that are affected by
inhibition of the cyclooxygenase-1 isoenzyme. In addition, nitric oxide inhibits intercellular adhesion
molecule 1, thereby decreasing neutrophil adherence, resulting in the prevention of NSAID-induced
gastroduodenal mucosal injury. Adapted from Wallace.1
NSAID or Acetylsalicylic Acid
Mucosal blood flow?
TABLE 2. CURRENT RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE TREATMENT OF NSAID-RELATED
DYSPEPSIA AND MUCOSAL INJURY.
Dyspepsia Empirical treatment with H2-receptor antagonist (e.g.,
400 mg of cimetidine, 150 mg of ranitidine or nizatidine,
or 20 mg of famotidine, all twice daily) or proton-pump
inhibitor (e.g., 20 mg of omeprazole, 30 mg of lansopra-
zole, 20 mg of rabeprazole, or 40 mg of pantoprazole
daily before breakfast); individualize therapy
Treatment to eradicate infection only in patients with a his-
tory of peptic ulcer
Helicobacter pylori infection
ulcer NSAID discontinued
Treatment with an H2-receptor antagonist (e.g., 800 mg of
cimetidine, 150 mg of ranitidine or nizatidine, or 40 mg
of famotidine daily before bedtime) or a proton-pump in-
hibitor (as above)
Treatment with a proton-pump inhibitor (as above)
Concomitant treatment with misoprostol (»200 µg three
times a day), a proton-pump inhibitor (as above), or a cy-
clooxygenase-2–preferential or cyclooxygenase-2–selec-
Volume 340 Number 24
the NSAID and substitute therapy with acetamino-
phen or a nonacetylated salicylate. If treatment with
the NSAID must be continued, proton-pump inhib-
itors should be used, since they appear to heal ulcers
at the same rate, whether or not NSAID therapy is
continued. After the ulcer has healed and it has been
determined that NSAID therapy must be continued,
the most effective prophylaxis against recurrent ulcers
is the concomitant administration of misoprostol (at
least 200 µg given three times a day) or a proton-
pump inhibitor, or the use of an NSAID that pref-
erentially or selectively inhibits cyclooxygenase-2. The
ultimate choice of therapy in a particular patient de-
pends on several things, including risk factors, the
preferences of the patient and the physician, and
cost. The development of cyclooxygenase-2–selective
inhibitors and the formulation of other new, safer
NSAIDs should broaden the range of options.
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99. Lanza FL, Rack MF, Callison DA, et al. A pilot endoscopic study of
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