The most commonly prescribed pain relief for back pain, paracetamol, is ineffective in offering patients any relief, according to a recent study released in Australia.

Contrary to the long-held belief that back pain could be relieved with a couple of pills and a lie down, the research suggests that paracetamol is ineffective for back pain – with researchers adding that physical activity aided in recovery more than the commonly prescribed treatment.

Researchers from the George Institute for Global Health at the University of Sydney were seeking evidence of the effectiveness of paracetamol in relieving back pain.

The study, published in The Lancet (23 July 2014) was carried out with 1600 patients with acute new onset back pain. In the study, patients were offered either a placebo, paracetamol as needed or regular extended release paracetamol.

Study leader, Professor Chris Maher, said on ABC Radio that the research team was ‘very surprised’ by the evidence.

“It didn’t really matter whether you gave people placebo as required, paracetamol or regular paracetamol, there was no difference in any of the outcomes. It didn’t’ speed time to recovery; it didn’t improve their pain; it didn’t improve their disability.”

“The strong message you can take from our trial is that people in the three groups all recovered remarkably quickly. Half the people had recovered by two weeks,” said Professor Maher.

“So what we’re thinking is that the interactions between the GP and the patient [should include] carefully guiding the person to resume normal activity [and] don’t put themselves to bed – maybe that’s the most important part of the therapy.”

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The research was funded by the Australian Government and GlaxoSmithKline Australia and was carried out between 2009 and 2013.

Further reading:
ABC Radio interview with Chris Maher:
The Australian: Take exercise, not paracetamol for back pain: report