Study: Taking Tylenol Won’t Ease Your Back Pain

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For a long time, doctors and non-doctors alike have been recommending the painkiller acetaminophen (paracetamol) — more popularly known as Tylenol — for a wide array of pains, including lower back pain. But now a new Australian study, published in medical journal The Lancet, has found that Tylenol does nothing to help lower back pain and is just as efficient at alleviating pain as a placebo sugar pill.

“Simple analgesics such as paracetamol might not be of primary importance in the management of acute lower back pain,” said lead author Dr. Christopher Williams from the George Institute for Global Health at the University of Sydney in Australia in a news release. “The results suggest we need to reconsider the universal recommendation to provide paracetamol as a first-line treatment for low-back pain, although understanding why paracetamol works for other pain states but not low-back pain would help direct future treatments.

“In view of the quick timeframe in which participants in our trial improved compared with other cohorts, it would be interesting to see whether advice and reassurance (as provided in our trial) might be a more effective than pharmacological strategies for acute episodes of low-back pain.”

In the study, 1,600 subjects with lower back pain, with the average age of 45, were randomly given either a Tylenol tablet or a placebo pill. Each participant was assigned to take their designated pill for three doses a day for up to four weeks. In addition to there being no difference in lower back pain, Tylenol did not play a role in helping these subjects sleep better or improve their quality of life.

“While we have shown that paracetamol does not speed recovery from acute back pain, there is evidence that paracetamol works to relieve pain for a range of other conditions, such as headaches, some acute musculoskeletal conditions, tooth ache and for pain straight after surgery,” said Christine Lin, an associate professor at the George Institute for Global Health, in a statement about the findings, reports Reuters. “What this study indicates is that the mechanisms of back pain are likely to be different from other pain conditions, and this is an area that we need to study more.”

Generally speaking, those at risk of lower back pain are middle-age males, those with a family history of back pain, those with a prior back injury, pregnant women, those not getting regular exercise, and people who are overweight, smoking, have a sedentary job, or are under stress or have poor posture. Reuters notes that around the globe, lower back pain is one of the major causes of disability. In the United States, costs relating to lower back pain are estimated to be more than $100 billion per calendar year. Taking into consideration that the first step in treating lower back pain is recommending acetaminophen, the findings of the study are significant, to say the least.

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