A No-Go For Achy Backs: The Limits Of Tylenol For Pain Relief

It’s a common practice for pain sufferers: Reach for a bottle of Tylenol. But while doctors have recommended its use to relieve back and osteoarthritis pain for years, new research is now questioning the treatment.

According to a series of trials from Australia’s University of Sydney, acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is no more effective at relieving lower back pain and osteoarthritis than a placebo.

As part of the study, researchers randomly gave 1,652 participants with acute lower back pain and 1,741 patients with osteoarthritis up to four weeks of acetaminophen in regular doses (three doses a day up to 3,990 mg a day), as-needed doses (up to 4,000 mg a day), or a placebo. Participants also received advice for managing their pain and reassurance, as well as follow-ups for three months.

What they found was surprising: For back pain sufferers, there was no difference in the number of days it took for study participants to recover from their pain, regardless of whether they took doses of acetaminophen or the placebo. On average, it took the groups that received acetaminophen 17 days to recover, and the group that took the placebo 16 days to recover. Researchers also discovered that acetaminophen provided only minimal short-term relief for people with osteoarthritis.

Acetaminophen also had no short-term effect on participants’ movement ability, sleep quality, or quality of life.

According to the American Chiropractic Association, 31 million Americans suffer from lower back pain at any given time, and up to 80 percent of the population will experience back pain at some point in their lives. The Centers for Disease Control also reports that an estimated 27 million adults suffer from osteoarthritis.

Related: 8 Everyday Things That Cause Pain

Despite popular practice, some experts say the new findings aren’t surprising—and there are many more effective ways of relieving pain from lower back issues and osteoarthritis.

“Overall, there is mounting evidence that acetaminophen is not effective for relief of these conditions, which reflects what patients relate to their physicians in routine clinical practice,” Eric Matteson, MD, rheumatology chair at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., tells Yahoo Health. “Other forms of pain relievers, used judiciously, can be helpful, but the emphasis in management of chronic pain related to degenerative joint diseases is increasing on non-pharmacologic measures. “

For immediate relief, Dallas-area osteopathic internist Al Johnson tells Yahoo Health that patients should take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen, the main ingredient in Advil, to lower the body’s inflammation. However, if the injury is severe, he recommends manual treatment to release the restriction in the body that’s causing the pain.

General exercise, manipulation of the body, and core-specific exercises have also been shown to be effective treatments for back and osteoarthritis pain, says chiropractor Jay Greenstein, DC, vice chairman for the Council on Chiropractic Guidelines and Practice Parameters and CEO of Sport & Spine Rehab. Back pain, especially, should be treated by manipulation, he tells Yahoo Health: “There’s usually a mechanical reason behind it. If you only choose to address it through chemical means, you’re not going to get long-term relief, and over time, your condition will become chronic.”

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Studies have also found that yoga is an effective way to relieve both back and osteoarthritis pain. A 2014 joint study from the University of Minnesota and University of Maryland found that weekly hatha yoga sessions improved osteoarthritis pain in older women, and a 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that regular yoga classes and stretching improved back pain and function in sufferers of lower back pain.

Research has shown that acupuncture can relieve back and osteoarthritis pain as well. A 2012 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that participants had greater relief from back pain after receiving acupuncture compared to those who did not, and a study funded by the National Institutes of Health discovered that acupuncture provided pain relief and improved function in people who have osteoarthritis in the knee.

Bottom line: While surprising, this new research doesn’t eliminate all relief options for sufferers of back and osteoarthritis pain.

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