This popular pain-reliever no more effective than a sugar pill

pain, pain reliefHave you ever taken acetaminophen for a sore back and felt like it did absolutely nothing for the pain?

Well, there may have been something more to that thought. A new study published in The Lancet has found that paracetamol (also commonly referred to as acetaminophen) was ineffective at providing pain relief for back pain. One popular long-time acetaminophen product is Tylenol, which could be sitting in your medicine cabinet right now.


Researchers who looked at 1,652 adults with acute back pain in Sydney, Australia found that paracetamol administered three times daily for four weeks, or as needed, was no more effective at pain relief than a placebo, The Guardian reported.

Tylenol could be just a sugar pill

Back pain is a common ailment and nearly all of us experience it at some point. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that Americans spend at least $50 billion annually to try to treat or cure their back pain, so this is a real concern.

Are we throwing away our money on over-the-counter meds that are ineffective?

Back pain is the second most common neurological problem in the United States after headaches. It’s also the leading cause of job-related disability. Most back pain is resolved in a few days, fortunately, but lower back pain that persists for more than three months is considered chronic.

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Dealing with acute back pain

The research is of interest because paracetamol is commonly taken for acute lower back pain, whether it is purchased over-the-counter or prescribed. However, as the researchers noted in the study itself, despite the fact that paracetamol is the first-line analgesic (painkiller) suggested for low-back pain, “No high-quality evidence supports this recommendation.”

The average age of the study participants was 45. Their back pain, though chronic, was not severe enough to require time off work or other medication. They were randomly assigned to one of three treatment groups and the patients did not know if they were receiving paracetamol or a placebo for pain relief.

On average, the study participants needed the same amount of time to recover from back pain whether they were taking paracetamol or a placebo, The Guardian reported. The recovery time was 17 days for both groups taking paracetamol, whether it was administered as needed or three times daily. As for the placebo group, their recovery time for pain relief from low-back pain was 16 days.

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What can you do for back pain?

The paracetamol, along with not showing a measurable difference in pain relief, also didn’t provide a benefit in terms of relieving short-term pain, disability or improving the sleep or quality of life of the study participants. The study authors say their findings ought to make medical professionals think again about their “almost universal endorsement of paracetamol as the first-choice painkiller for low-back pain.”

However, as Dr. Michael Banna (unaffiliated with the study) says, the advantage of paracetamol is the fact it is considered really safe. “A blanket move toward prescribing other drugs first would likely bring with it problems relating to side effects as well as other risks,” Banna wrote.


If you want to try more natural ways to manage low-back pain, the NIH suggests that hot and cold compresses may help reduce inflammation. Also, it seems counter-intuitive, but exercise can help relieve back pain by strengthening your back and abdominal muscles. And exercise can benefit your overall health in so many ways!

If you don’t find any pain relief from back pain within three days, it is important that you go and see your doctor.

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