Ibuprofen No Better Than Placebo for Back Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

When it comes to treating back pain, anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen work no better than a placebo, according to new Australian study.

Researchers at the University of Sydney conducted a meta-analysis (a study of studies) of 35 clinical trials involving over 6,000 people with back pain, and found that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) provide little benefit. The study was published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.

NSAIDs are effective for spinal pain, but the magnitude of the difference in outcomes between the intervention and placebo groups is not clinically important. At present, there are no simple analgesics that provide clinically important effects for spinal pain over placebo,” wrote lead author Gustavo Machado, PhD, of The George Institute for Global Health. “There is an urgent need to develop new drug therapies for this condition.”

Back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability, with about 80 percent of adults experiencing back pain at some point in their lives.

Opioids are usually not prescribed for simple back pain, leaving patients little alternative but over-the-counter pain relievers such as NSAIDs, a class of drugs that includes both aspirin and ibuprofen. NSAIDs are known to raise the risk of gastrointestinal and cardiovascular problems.

The Australian study found that NSAIDs reduced pain and disability somewhat better than a placebo or dummy medication, but the results were not statistically important.

"NSAIDs do not provide a clinically important effect on spinal pain, and six patients must be treated with NSAIDs for one patient to achieve a clinically important benefit in the short-term," wrote Machado. “When this result is taken together with those from recent reviews on paracetamol (acetaminophen) and opioids, it is now clear that the three most widely used, and guideline-recommended medicines for spinal pain do not provide clinically important effects over placebo.”

The study did not evaluate non-pharmacological treatments for back pain, such as exercise, physical therapy or chiropractic care.

NSAIDs are widely used to treat everything from fever and headache to low back pain and arthritis. They are found in so many different products -- such as ibuprofen, Advil and Motrin -- that many consumers may not be aware how often they use NSAIDs.