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2022 May 18

J Intern Med

Lessons from 20 years with COX-2 inhibitors: importance of dose-response considerations and fair play in comparative trials.


Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) inhibit the enzyme cyclooxygenase (COX) which forms prostaglandins involved in pain and inflammation. COX-inhibitors have analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects, but also increased risks for gastrointestinal ulcers, bleeding, and renal and cardiovascular adverse events. Identification of two isoforms of COX, COX-1 and COX-2, led to the development of selective COX-2 inhibitors which were launched as having fewer gastrointestinal side effects since gastroprotective prostaglandins produced via COX-1 are spared. The balance between COX-1 mediated prothrombotic thromboxane and COX-2 mediated antithrombotic prostacyclin is important for thrombotic risk. An increased risk of suffering myocardial infarction and death with COX-2 inhibitor treatment is well established from clinical trials and observational research. Rofecoxib (Vioxx) was withdrawn from the market for this reason, but the equally COX-2 selective etoricoxib has replaced it in Europe but not in the US. The "traditional" NSAID diclofenac is as COX-2 selective as celecoxib and increases cardiovascular risk dose-dependently. COX inhibitor dosages should be lower in osteoarthritis than in rheumatoid arthritis. Randomized trials comparing COX-2 inhibitors with NSAIDs have exaggerated their gastrointestinal benefits by using maximal NSAID doses regardless of indication, and/or hidden the cardiovascular risk by comparing with COX-2 selective diclofenac instead of low-dose ibuprofen or naproxen. Observational studies show increased cardiovascular risks within weeks of treatment with COX-2 inhibitors and high doses of NSAIDs other than naproxen, which is the safest alternative. COX inhibitors are symptomatic drugs that should be used intermittently at the lowest effective dosage, especially among individuals with an increased cardiovascular risk. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.