Acetaminophen is a powerful pain medication that is often recommended for back pain and other forms of musculoskeletal pain. It relieves pain by working centrally (in the brain) to switch off the perception of pain.
Acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) is often recommended because of its relatively low risk profile. For example, it may be recommended for people who can’t or prefer not to take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, or NSAIDs (e.g. ibuprofen, Advil), because of stomach irritation or worries about heart attack risks.
Acetaminophen is among the most common over-the-counter pain medications. In addition to being widely sold on its own, acetaminophen is other medications. However, like all medications, there are potential risks and drawbacks. This article discusses some the benefits and risks of acetaminophen, as well as research into its effectiveness for back pain.
How Acetaminophen Is Used for Back Pain
Acetaminophen is typically sold in varying strengths. For instance, one popular brand, Tylenol, is available in regular strength, extra strength, and arthritis pain formulas.
The FDA advises that the maximum safe daily dose for acetaminophen is 4,000 mg for adults.1 Certain health advocates recommend a lower limit of 3,000 mg, since some people’s bodies are especially sensitive to acetaminophen’s effects.2
The manufacturer of Tylenol recommends different maximum doses, based on the product. These maximums range from 3,250 mg per day for regular strength Tylenol to 3,900 mg per day for the arthritis pain product.
To see how this adds up, it’s useful to consider the example of regular strength Tylenol, with 325 mg per tablet. Taken as directed, an individual would take 2 tablets every 6 hours, not to exceed 10 tablets, totaling 3,250 mg, in a 24-hour period.3
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Benefits of Acetaminophen
Acetaminophen has fewer risks and potential complication than most pain medications. Some of the benefits relative to other medications include:
- There is no chance of addiction (unlike, for instance, opioids/narcotic pain medications)
- Patients do not develop a tolerance (loss of pain-relieving effect) with extended use
- It rarely produces gastrointestinal (stomach) upset
- Very few patients are allergic to it
While acetaminophen is widely used, some possible drawbacks should be considered.
- New Steps Aimed at Cutting Risks from Acetaminophen. Consumer Updates, U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 13 January 2011. Available at http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm239747.htm. Accessed 6 January 2016.
- Acetaminophen safety: Be cautious but not afraid. Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School. 9 October 2015. Available at http://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/acetaminophen-safety-be-cautious-but-not-afraid. Accessed 6 January 2016.
- TYLENOL® Dosage for Adults. Tylenol. Available at http://www.tylenol.com/safety-dosing/usage/dosage-for-adults. Accessed 6 January 2016.