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Acetaminophen or placebo? Either works

For acute episodes of low back pain, whether the analgesic acetaminophen or a placebo (pill with no pharmacological effect) is taken does not effect recovery time. This is the conclusion of a study that followed 1,652 people with back pain who were medicated in 235 primary care centers in Sydney, Australia (The Lancet, July 24, 2014). The patients, with an average age of 45, received the drug or the placebo for 4 weeks. At the end of treatment, subjects taking the painkiller took 17 days to recover, while those who received the placebo recovered after 16 days. “Simple analgesics such as acetaminophen should not be of primary importance in controlling episodes of lower back pain,” says principal author Christopher Williams of Sydney University. “The study results suggest that we need to reconsider the universal recommendation to prescribe acetaminophen as a first-line treatment for this problem. Understanding why this analgesic works in other situations, but not to reduce back pain, could be useful in developing new treatments.”