Paracetamol no better than placebo for low back pain, study finds

Wed Jul 23, 2014 6:58pm EDT
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By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) - Paracetamol, a painkiller universally recommended to treat people with acute low back pain, does not speed recovery or reduce pain from the condition, according to the results of a large trial published on Thursday.

A study published in The Lancet medical journal found that the popular pain medicine was no better than placebo, or dummy pills, for hastening recovery from acute bouts of low back pain or easing pain levels, function, sleep or quality of life.

Researchers said the findings challenge the universal endorsement of paracetamol as the first choice painkiller for lower back pain.

"We need to reconsider the universal recommendation to provide paracetamol as a first-line treatment," said Christopher Williams, who led the study at the University of Sydney in Australia.

Lower back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide. In the United States alone, costs relating to the condition are estimated to be more than $100 billion a year.

Currently, every back pain treatment guideline in the world recommends paracetamol as the first-line analgesic and Williams said this was despite the fact that no previous studies have provided robust evidence that it works in this condition.

In his trial, 1,652 people from Sydney with acute low back pain were randomly assigned to receive up to four weeks of paracetamol, either in regular doses three times a day, or as needed, or to receive placebos. All those involved received advice and reassurance and were followed up for three months.

The results showed no difference in the number of days to recovery between the treatment groups - with the average time to recovery coming out at 17 days for each of the groups given paracetamol, and at 16 days for the placebo group.   Continued...