The British Medical Journal has published findings revealing that  paracetamol does not relieve back pain and is ineffective in treating people with arthritis in their hips or knees.

The research, which included an analysis of the data from 13 clinical trials involving more than 5,000 patients, was carried out by Gustavo Machado from the George Institute for Global Health at the University of Sydney. The aim of the research was to consider the effectiveness and safety of taking paracetamol to relieve symptoms of osteopathic and back pain.

It is believed that 10 million people in the United Kingdom are affected by back pain, which is a leading cause of disability. The Guardian has reported that this has led to the loss of “many millions of working days, including 4.9m a year from work-related back pain.”

The authors of the research have advised that, in cases of osteoarthritis, their results “show only a small, clinically irrelevant benefit of paracetamol for pain and disability at short-term follow-up.” They also found that taking paracetamol is “not clinically superior to placebo.” They believe their research “provides an argument to reconsider the endorsement of paracetamol in clinical practice guidelines for low back pain and hip or knee osteoarthritis.” Reports in the press have highlighted concerns that large doses of this painkiller  - above 4,000mg a day -  can cause a higher risk of liver toxicity in patients.

The research findings also indicate that “strengthening exercises may be just as effective as the painkiller for both conditions.” These findings have put considerable pressure on the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) which endorsed the use of paracetamol for osteoarthritis only last year. NICE is currently awaiting the results of a review of over-the-counter medicines by the Medicine and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) before producing its own report.

With so many people in the United Kingdom suffering from back pain and osteoarthritis, the findings of MHRA and NICE on the impact of the drug on these two conditions will be anxiously awaited.

The Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team acts for a number of clients suffering from back pain, many of whom will have been advised to take paracetemol to relieve their pain. The outcome of NICE’s review and updated guidance on the issue will, therefore, be of great interest.