Tylenol and back pain often go hand in hand, but a new study from Australia has presented some pretty concrete evidence that the medicine’s main ingredient, acetaminophen, does absolutely nothing to help with back pain. Don’t despair, however. There are plenty of non-pharmaceutical options you can use to treat your back pain, and chances are they will yield better results.  

The Study

A team of researchers from Australia conducted the Paracetamol for Low-Back Pain Study to see just how far acetaminophen, also known as paracetamol for those outside of the Americas, went to relieve back pain. It turns out that it really doesn’t go very far at all, according to a press release. A total of 1,652 individuals around the age of 45, who were suffering from acute lower back pain, were involved in the study. The volunteers were split into three groups: One group took the prescribed dosage of acetaminophen (three times a day), the second took the drug when they felt they needed it (maximum of 4,000mg per day), and the final group took a placebo. The study lasted for a total of four weeks and participants were followed up for three months.

Disappointing Results

Results showed that there was no difference in recovery time for participants in any of the three groups. The average time for back pain recovery was 17 days in the group given medication and 16 days for the group given the placebo. "Simple analgesics such as paracetamol might not be of primary importance in the management of acute lower back pain," lead author Dr. Christopher Williams explained in the press release. Williams added that based on the results, it would be interesting to see if “advice and assurance might be more effective than pharmacological strategies for acute episodes of low-back pain.”

Don’t Throw Away Your Tylenol Just Yet!

Christine Lin, a researcher involved in the study, explained to Reuters that even though acetaminophen may not be likely to provide relief from lower back pain, there is evidence that it works “to relieve pain from a range of other conditions such as headaches, some acute musculoskeletal conditions, tooth ache, and for pain straight after surgery,” Other experts not involved in the study were hesitant to advise patients to retire acetaminophen from their back pain regimen, commenting that “more robust and consistent evidence, including verification of the results in other populations, is needed.”

Alternative Options For Back Pain

Exercise

Time reported that yoga is an excellent way to both treat pain caused by lower back tension and prevent future spells of backaches. The popular exercise technique helps to release stress in the back, which is often the root cause of one's back pain. Yoga also helps to strengthen your core and release tension and tightness in the back muscles, making it an excellent preventive measure. Not really into yoga? No problem. Try swimming or walking. Spine Health reported that any low-impact aerobic exercise can help to relieve pain because it brings oxygen to the soft tissues in the back. 

Chiropractic Adjustment

Dr. Charles V. Nicolai, a chiropractor working at Wall Street Chiropractic in New York City, explained to Medical Daily that a chiropractic adjustment works by realigning the spine. It is able to “put the joint back into its normal range of motion and helps the related ligaments and muscles restore to normal function.” 

The chiropractor was not surprised by the news that acetaminophen does not work in relieving back pain, comparing the situation to that of someone standing on your toe. “The best relief for that person is to remove pressure from your toe. It’s the same with low-back pain … the sprain or strain or ‘pinch,’ and that dysfunction needs to be relieved.”

Chiropractic adjustment is an excellent alternative to medication for those seeking relief from back pain. According to Nicolai, some patients experience relief at the very first session. “NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as Tylenol) may help things feel better. Chiropractic and physical therapy also helps things heal better,” Nicolai said.

What Is Back Pain?

If you suffer from lower back pain, rest assured that you are not alone. The National Library of Health estimates that the pain and stiffness of acute back pain is likely to affect most individuals at some point in their lives. The lower back usually gets the brunt effects of back pain because of its function in supporting most of our body weight. Back pain is likely to be the result of lifting a heavy object, sitting in one position for a long time, or an injury sustained from an accident. These sorts of backaches usually heal in a few days or weeks.

Lower back pain can also be an indication of something much more serious such as leaking of an aortic aneurysm, kidney infection, or problems with the female reproductive system. It is important to seek help at the first signs of back pain. “If the alarm is ringing, don’t ignore it,” Nicolai said. “Many problems do go away on their own. However, early diagnosis and treatment for back pain prevents a small fire from growing into a huge fire.” 

Source: Williams CM, Maher CG, Latimer J, et al. Efficacy of paracetamol for acute low-back pain: a double-blind randomised controlled trial. The Lancet. 2014.