Acetaminophen May Not Actually Alleviate Aches And Pains — Because The Placebo Effect Is Powerful

If you use Tylenol, it may seem like the painkiller is doing its job to alleviate back or joint pain. But a new review of studies on people who take the drug showed acetaminophen didn't actually work. In fact, it was no more effective than placebos in most cases.

Australian scientists surveyed 13 studies comparing the effects of acetaminophen, the active ingredient in over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol, to those of placebos — sugar pills used in experiments as controls to contrast with actual drugs — and found no advantage to the drug for reducing lower back pain and barely any effect for knee or hip pain.

Yet clinical guidelines still recommend acetaminophen as the first resort for treating both spinal and joint pain — a practice physicians may want to reconsider, the researchers suggest.

McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the maker of Tylenol, came to its own defense in a statement urging the public to "comprehensively look at the body of evidence," arguing that "the safety and efficacy profile of acetaminophen is supported by more than 150 studies over the past 50 years." Caveats regarding self-interest obviously apply — but Dr. Houman Danesh, director of integrative pain management at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, also encouraged skepticism toward the study's conclusions. Aggregating the results of 13 studies may mask the drug's benefits to particular subgroups of patients, Danesh told CBS News.

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Still, sticklers for Tylenol may want to proceed with caution because acetaminophen is linked to liver damage, so the remedy may be worse than the disease — especially if it isn't an actual remedy.

So is Tylenol just an (albeit very powerful) power-of-suggestion drug? Not entirely, Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., told Cosmopolitan. The drug may be helpful for alleviating fevers or non-inflammatory pain such as a sore throat. But for everything else, you're better off popping an Advil, Aleve, or aspirin — or, as the study suggests, just taking a sugar pill.

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