The One Pain Reliever You Should Never Take for Your Back, New Study Says

This pain reliever is popular, but experts agree that it's the wrong choice for back pain sufferers.

If you suffer from lower back pain, you're probably all too familiar with the challenges of treating it. And according to the World Health Organization (WHO), you're not alone: they point out that between 60 and 70 percent of adults will experience lower back pain in their lifetime.

Pain control is essential, say experts from Harvard Men's Health Watch not only because it increases comfort, but also because it "allows you to stay active, which assists in your recovery." But not all pain management tools are created equal. Studies suggest that there's one popular pain pill that you should avoid when it comes to back pain for the simple reason that it's ineffective at treating it. Read on to find out which pain reliever to avoid, and for more breaking news that could impact your OTC regimen, The FDA Released a New Warning About This OTC Pain Reliever.

Don't take acetaminophen for back pain.


A person holding two pills in the palm of their hand and a glass of water

According to a study published in The Medical Journal of Australia earlier this month, there's one pain reliever you should avoid when treating back pain: acetaminophen, also known as paracetamol. The study, which looked at the efficacy of acetaminophen in treating various aches and pains concluded, "There is high quality evidence that paracetamol is not effective for relieving acute low back pain."

However, the study found that the drug is effective in treating a variety of other ailments, including knee and hip osteoarthritis, craniotomy, tension-type headache, and more. "There's good evidence that acetaminophen relieves headaches, dental pain, and pain after surgery, but its effectiveness for back pain is less well supported," echoes Harvard Men's Health Watch. And for the latest health news delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Reach for an anti-inflammatory option instead.


Women and pills she think about her health at home

Instead of taking Tylenol or other acetaminophen-based medications, experts say you should instead reach for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) to treat both back pain and inflammation.

Like acetaminophen, which is classified as an analgesic, NSAIDs are available in both over-the-counter and prescription strength. "Inflammation is a contributing factor in most back and neck pain conditions, so reducing inflammation often helps alleviate the pain," says Kathee de Falla, PharmD (via Spine Health). "They can be used to address short-term back, neck, and muscle pain," she adds. And for more on OTC pain relief, If You Take These 2 OTC Meds Together, You're Putting Your Liver at Risk.

…But only use it to treat flare-ups.


man with backache and muscle pain

While NSAIDs can be effective in treating chronic back pain, you may want to reserve them for more serious flare-ups. That's because long-term use may lead to side effects over time, including an increased risk of peptic ulcer disease, acute renal failure, and stroke/myocardial infarction. "Moreover, chronic NSAID use can exacerbate a number of chronic diseases including heart failure and hypertension, and can interact with a number of drugs (eg, warfarin, corticosteroids)," according to a 2010 study published in the medical journal Annals of Long-Term Care.

Researchers have also found evidence to suggest that NSAIDs may become less effective over time for patients who take them every day for several weeks or months, de Falla notes.

Try these interventions, too.


Runner stretching to boost his metabolism, exercise

According to Harvard Men's Health Watch, there are non-pharmaceutical interventions that can help you rely less heavily on NSAIDs for pain relief. They suggest soothing your back with a cold compress when pain is at its worst, and using a hot compress "to relax the affected muscles and enhance blood flow to the area" when back pain is moderate.

They also recommend staying active, stretching, and focusing on strengthening exercises to "build muscles that support your spine." They advise consulting a physical therapist for tips on doing this safely, as well as advice on keeping your back safe during everyday activities. And for more essential medical news, If You're Taking This OTC Medicine More Than Twice a Week, See a Doctor.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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