Paracetamol Ineffective For Back Pain And Osteoarthritis


Most of us have us have used paracetamol at some point in our lives, whether to bring down a fever, for a headache, joint pain or some other painful condition. In fact, if we have a look in our medicine cabinets we’ll probably find a box…or two! Machado et al. from George Institute for Global Health at the University of Sydney recently reviewed the scientific literature with the aim of investigating the efficacy and safety of paracetamol (acetaminophen) in the management of spinal pain and osteoarthritis of the hip or knee. They included 13 randomised controlled trials in their review and the results were published in the BMJ.

They found that for low back pain, paracetamol was ineffective at reducing pain or disability and at improving quality of life. It’s important to point out that by “ineffective”, they mean that paracetamol did not provide more benefit than a placebo. For hip and knee osteoarthritis they found that there was a significant, although not clinically important, effect on pain and disability in the short term. Adverse events were not more likely with paracetamol than placebo but patients taking paracetamol are 4 times more likely to have abnormal results on liver function tests.

Although the clinical importance of the last finding is uncertain, paracetamol has been linked to increasing incidence of mortality, increased risk of cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and renal disease. This study has prompted the BMJ to release an editorial discussing the use of paracetamol for back pain and osteoarthritis. One of the problems for GPs is that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends paracetamol as the first port of call for low back pain and arthritis. Taking this option away leaves NSAIDS and opioids which both present even more health risks… Non-pharmalogical options should be pursued and developed i.e. physical activity and exercise, weight loss, nutritional supplements and physiotherapy of course!