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The team that looked at prescribing practices for 15 countries, including England, found diclofenac was a common choice over other painkillers despite its higher risk of side effects. The work is published in PLoS Medicine. Experts say the absolute risk of complications with diclofenac is small and patients prescribed this drug by their doctors should stay on it.
A similar drug called rofecoxib (Vioxx), in the same non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug family (NSAIDs) as diclofenac, was voluntarily taken off the market by its manufacturer in 2004 amid concerns over associated heart risks. There is an ongoing Europe-wide review of diclofenac's safety.
While prescribing of diclofenac could be entirely appropriate, there is concern that it might be the wrong choice for some patients. Justin Mason, a professor of vascular rheumatology at Imperial College London, said: "I do think there is over prescription of diclofenac.
"There are some particular cases when it is a good option - but there are other painkillers that may be considered safer.
"We need to understand these types of drugs on an individual basis rather than tarnish them all with the same brush.
"There is an argument that diclofenac should be withdrawn from being available over the counter in shops."
Diclofenac is often used to treat painful conditions like arthritis.