Acetaminophen – also known as Tylenol and Paracetamol – is incredibly popular as a pain reliever.
Throughout the world, people rely on it and similar drugs for the daily management of all sorts of chronic pain disorders, in particular osteoarthritis and back pain.
However, recent research has many doctors and scientists calling the efficacy – and safety – of this common over-the-counter medication into question.
Is Acetaminophen Effective?
A recent randomized, placebo-controlled trial, the results of which were published in the British Medical Journal, seems to have revealed that in some cases – particularly cases of lower back pain caused by osteoarthritis – acetaminophen may be no more effective than a placebo(1).
Previous studies, published in the same journal, had asserted that acetaminophen was an effective means of pain relief for osteoarthritis sufferers(2). However, those findings – now over ten years old – may currently be out of date with contemporary medicine.
The recent study calls for a re-examination of the frequency with which acetaminophen is used to treat lower back pain associated with osteoarthritis. It certainly may not be the “wonder drug” early studies made it out to be.
Is Acetaminophen Safe?
Acetaminophen has long been considered safe, especially by “lay-people” like most patients. But the reality is that acetaminophen’s popularity has led to it becoming one of the most frequently overdosed-on drugs in America, as well as other developed countries.
One 2006 study estimated that acetaminophen-associated overdoses account for approximately 56,000 emergency room visits and 26,000 hospitalizations per year(3) in the United States.
Even when not taken in excessive amounts, acetaminophen may not be as safe as doctors initially thought, especially when it comes to long-term use, as is often associated with the management of chronic pain(4).
For these reasons, many doctors are now urging caution and restraint when it comes to acetaminophen use, especially for those who are using it over an extended period of time.
Implications For Treatment
These recent findings about acetaminophen’s efficacy and safety are causing many health professionals to reassess the way they treat chronic pain, especially lower back pain associated with osteoarthritis.
While there are many contemporary methods of dealing with these physical symptoms – including topical analgesics(5) and natural anti-inflammatories(6) – ultimately many doctors feel that physical therapy is the way forward for osteoarthritis patients(7).
In particular, strength training and aquatic physical therapy, along with electrical stimulation and balance training, can have a huge impact when it comes to reducing pain and even helping to restore mobility to those living with osteoarthritis(8).