Systematic science review finds that ibuprofen is no better than placebo in treating back pain
07/05/2018 // Cassie B. // Views

It’s a familiar scene in TV commercials: A person, who is clearly suffering, pops an over-the-counter pain medication and like magic, they can suddenly return to their favorite activities as if nothing had ever happened, the expression of relief on their face palpable. But what if that feeling was actually all in their head? A new study shows that ibuprofen doesn’t work any better than a placebo when it comes to back pain, so it might not be necessary to take these risky pills after all.

According to a systematic review from the University of Sydney, the poor efficacy of ibuprofen in treating back pain makes its risks outweigh the minor benefits it may provide. The researchers reached their conclusion after looking at 35 peer-reviewed trials encompassing data from more than 6,000 patients.

Ibuprofen belongs to the category of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, and the researchers found that they only have a clinically significant effect in 3 of the 14 categories analyzed. The researchers concluded that they would only cause an improvement over the placebo in just one out of every six patients.

That might lead you to believe they’re essentially harmless pills and you have little to lose by taking them, but the study’s other findings say differently. The pills raised a person’s risk of experiencing gastrointestinal reactions by 2.5 times, even with very short periods of usage. There are even more potential problems when the person taking ibuprofen is already taking other medications. Ibuprofen should not be taken with beta blockers, diuretics, or corticosteroids, to name just a few.


It’s also worth noting that taking daily ibuprofen can have a negative impact on male fertility and cause sexual hormone dysfunction. According to researchers, three tablets a day can cause libido and muscle loss and depression and eventually lead to erectile dysfunction.

How can you tackle back pain safely and effectively?

The authors went on to stress that no simple painkillers currently provide clinically significant effects for back pain over a placebo.

With around 31 million Americans experiencing debilitating back pain at any time, lower back pain is considered the top cause of disability worldwide. Thankfully, there are a few solutions that have been shown to be effective and don’t carry with them the side effects that NSAIDs and other pain medication can cause.

For example, a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that chiropractic care is one of the biggest non-drug therapies that is considered effective on chronic and acute lower back pain.

Another good solution is acupuncture. One study of more than 1,100 adults found that acupuncture brought lasting relief to twice as many people with chronic lower back pain as conventional medicine and exercise therapy.

A meta analysis published in the Archives of Internal Medicine that examined 29 previous studies involving almost 18,000 adults found significantly lower levels of pain in those who had undergone acupuncture treatment compared to those getting conventional Western treatment for their pain.

If you’re suffering from back pain, it may be worth exploring treatments like acupuncture or chiropractic adjustment to help sort it out and get back to doing the activities you love. Why keep taking pills that aren’t doing anything except making your wallet lighter -- and possibly harming your health -- when there are more effective options available?

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