Scientists have shown that despite popular belief, aspirin and ibuprofen (also known as acetaminophen or paracetamol) don’t help with back pain at all.

Image credits: Derrick Coetzee

Over-the-counter pills are quite popular, but do they really help? Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen, are taken for many reasons, from common colds to hangovers or muscle aches. But they don’t always help, despite what many people think. A new study has found that in the case of back pain at least, they do little more than a placebo.

It’s not that they don’t do anything… it’s just that they don’t do anything for most people. The doctors report that for every patient reporting a clinically significant decrease in pain after two weeks on an NSAID, another six didn’t. This builds on previous studies, including a Cochrane review conducted in 2015 which found that ibuprofen is little more than a placebo for acute back pain.

Researchers from the George Institute for Global Health in Australia analyzed data from 35 peer-reviewed studies which included 6,065 patients with spinal pain. They found that despite being the most taken pills for back pain, paracetamol and its variants do basically nothing to ease the pain.

“When this result is taken together with those from recent reviews on paracetamol and opioids, it is now clear that the three most widely used, and guideline-recommended medicines for spinal pain do not provide clinically important effects over placebo,” they write in their paper.

Even stronger drugs, opiates such as codeine or OxyContin provide only modest short-term relief for those with chronic back pain, according to research published inJAMA Internal Medicine in 2016.

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While this might seem like pretty grim news, it’s actually good news. For most people, back pain is a temporary, passing issue, but the people who struggle with chronic issues deserve better treatment.

Team researcher Manuela Ferreira advises in The Guardian:

“We are not arguing that no pain relief should be used, but people using these types should be aware the benefits are small and that their side effects can be harmful, and that discussing with their doctors the benefit of other treatments including exercise may be worthwhile.”

Also, it’s quite shocking to see that such a common problem was mistreated by so many people for so many years.

Journal Reference: Gustavo C Machado, Chris G Maher, Paulo H Ferreira, Richard O Da — Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for spinal pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Rheum Dis doi:10.1136/annrheumdis-2016-210597

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