Acetaminophen’s Probably Not the Answer

I’d like to think I’m frozen in time, back to a day where no bones ever cracked and my back is free of pain, but that’s just not reality, folks. And, if I may say so, I’m willing to bet you’re in a similar boat.

Back pain is just about everywhere and ranks among the top causes of disability globally. For this pain, doctors usually point right to the medicine cabinet, with acetaminophen–sold under the well-known brand name Tylenol, among others–often being the first thing recommended to help ease your discomfort. However, a recent review of published trials is calling the use of acetaminophen into question, as it turns out it may not work much better for back pain than a placebo.

The review, published in The BMJ journal, had researchers taking a look at 13 different studies involving the use of acetaminophen to treat back pain and also pain stemming from osteoarthritis (https://www.bmj.com/content/350/bmj.h1225). They found that acetaminophen was rather ineffective in treating back pain, only had a minor effect on people suffering from pain due to osteoarthritis and increased the taker’s risk for liver problems.

Acetaminophen is currently one of the widest used drugs in the world, but taking too much regularly or with alcohol can carry significant consequences for your health. An overdose of this pain reliever is top cause for calls to US Poison Control Centers at over 100,000 instances a year, and acetaminophen is the reason behind an estimated half of all cases of acute liver failure in the country.

Part of the reason this pain medication can be so deadly is because it’s easy to overdose on it. In a trial published in the The Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that people who took just 25 percent over the daily maximum recommended dose–roughly two more extra-strength pills each day–showed signs of liver damage after only two weeks of daily use (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/211014). Other research has shown that just under four times the recommended daily maximum dose taken at one time can actually be fatal.

All in all, acetaminophen does not appear to do much–if anything–for back pain, and it carries a lot of risk, particularly if taken in slightly larger doses than recommended. If you’re suffering from back pain and include this pain reliever in your arsenal, it’s definitely time to go back to the drawing board!