Drugs commonly used to treat back pain are causing millions of Australians more harm than good, according to a new study.

An Australian review of 35 trials involving more than 6000 patients has found non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) used to treat back pain provide little benefit, but cause side effects.

Of all the patients treated with NSAIDS, just one in six reported a significant reduction in pain and were 2.5 times more likely to suffer gastrointestinal problems.

Taking into consideration the risks and the small benefits, the study shows taking these drugs to treat back pain is not worthwhile, says lead author Associate Professor Manuela Ferreira from The George Institute for Global Health.

“There is a benefit, it’s better than placebo but that benefit is small,” she said.

The study, published in the BMJ’s Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases journal, is the latest to call into question the effectiveness of existing medicines to treat the millions of Australians who suffer from back pain.

A previous George Institute study recently found popping a Panadol is ineffective and opioids provide little benefit.


Most clinical guidelines for treating back pain recommend NSAIDs as the second line analgesics after paracetamol, with opioids coming at third choice.

But these are just band-aids, says Assoc Prof Ferreira.

“There is no quick fix for back pain,” she said.

A stronger focus on preventing back pain is what’s needed, says research fellow Gustavo Machado, of The George Institute and the School of Medicine at the University of Sydney.

“We know that education and exercise programs can substantially reduce the risk of developing low back pain.”

Francine St George, a practising physiotherapist for more than 30 years, believes the mind is a powerful tool to overcoming back pain.


What are NSAIDs?

The most popular NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen and diclofenac. Others include mefenamic acid, naproxen, piroxicam, methyl salicylate, benzydamine and ketoprofen.


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