Dundee University scientists found that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as diclofenac and naproxen, were associated with very low risk of heart failure and stomach problems after scrutinising more the 7,000 patients.
It follows a major study published in the BMJ last week, which claimed patients who take the pills were more likely to develop heart failure.
Potential side effects, such as stomach ulcers and gut bleeding, arising from the use of NSAIDs have led to concerns from both doctors and patients about using these treatments for the long term relief of arthritis symptoms.
“If you need to take these medicines for arthritis pains and you have no history of heart attack or stroke, then either type of medicine seems acceptably safe,” said Professor Tom MacDonald, of Dundee University.
“These results offer significant reassurance to the many patients taking these medicines and can give increased confidence to the doctors prescribing these drugs.”
Arthritis is one of the biggest causes of pain and disability in Scotland and affects more than 900,000 people.
The team compared the common painkillers with a newer class of more targeted drugs called COX2 inhibitors in around 7,300 elderly patients in the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands.
Despite the usual risk factors among patients such as high blood pressure and smoking, the rate of heart probkems was low, at about 9 events per 100 patients over a ten-year period.
Prof MacDonald said: “This risk is close to what one might expect to find in a healthy population without risk factors or arthritis.”
Heart disease campaigners said the findings were “reassuring” but insisted that all prescriptions should be informed by individual circumstances.
Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “In recent years there has been concern about the association between commonly prescribed painkillers, known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, with an increased risk of developing heart disease. These drugs are used to help treat conditions such as arthritis.
“This study compared two different kinds of these non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and found that in patients over the age of 60 with no evidence of pre-existing heart and circulatory disease there was no difference in the risk of having a heart attack or stroke, when switching from older to the newer type of medication.
“This is reassuring for patients, however all prescriptions must be assessed on an individual basis and discussed with your GP to find the treatment that is right for you.”