Acetaminophen may not relieve back pain

Doctors often suggest taking acetaminophen for low back pain relief. But according to a new study, the popular painkiller isn’t any more effective in alleviating an aching back than letting the pain naturally subside.

A study published Thursday in The Lancet found patients who took acetaminophen for low back pain had the same recovery time as those who took a placebo, or sugar pill. The study was partially funded by GlaxoSmithKline, a company that manufactures drugs containing acetaminophen.

Researchers in Australia looked at 1,643 patients with acute low back pain. Each was assigned to a different group for the experiment. The first group of 550 patients took six 665-milligram tablets of acetaminophen a day as well as one to two placebo tablets.

A second group of 546 patients took six placebo tablets a day and one to two 500-milligram tablets of acetaminophen as needed. The third group took all placebos.

The study authors found no difference in recovery time across all three groups, suggesting that acetaminophen is an ineffective treatment for low back pain.

According to the National Institutes of Health, low back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability. Currently, the NIH recommends that people experiencing low back pain take over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. The NIH also advises these patients to stop normal physical activity and apply heat or ice to the affected area.

Despite the results of the study, scientists caution that acetaminophen as a low back pain treatment shouldn’t be dismissed until further research is conducted. Since the painkiller is effective for treating toothaches and pain after surgery, the study authors write that further research is needed to understand why acetaminophen wasn’t effective in treating the study participants’ pain.

Previous studies comparing ibuprofen and acetaminophen suggest neither is more beneficial in treating low back pain.

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