Acetaminophen: First-Line Defense for Back and Neck Pain

It’s one of the most common back pain medications, but it bears risks you may not know about.

Acetaminophen, best known under the brand name Tylenol, is one of the most common first-line treatments for back and neck pain. Your doctor may recommend a course of this medication before moving on to stronger or riskier therapies, if necessary. Acetaminophen belongs to a large class of drugs called analgesics, which vary greatly in strength and side effects, but they all help reduce pain.
Boxes of Tylenol and Acetaminophen on store shelvesAcetaminophen is found in more than 600 prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, including some opioids. This article focuses on OTC acetaminophen. You can read more about opioid medications containing acetaminophen in Opioids for Severe Back Pain and Neck Pain.

In addition to Tylenol, other acetaminophen brand names include:

  • Mapap
  • FeverAll
  • Tempra
  • Ofirmev
  • Panadol

Acetaminophen’s Strengths and Weaknesses
When you have bout of neck or back pain, your OTC medication options largely fall into 2 categories: acetaminophen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Acetaminophen and NSAIDs (eg, Advil, aspirin) both relieve pain, but NSAIDs also reduce inflammation. While NSAIDs boast an additional benefit over acetaminophen, they also bring an added potential side effect: stomach and gastrointestinal problems.

Acetaminophen is commonly recommended for acute back or neck pain—or pain that arises and resolves quickly. A back sprain or strain is an example of a spinal problem that may cause acute back pain. People who experience episodic pain may choose to take acetaminophen when their pain flares up.

People living with chronic spine pain, may find acetaminophen helps to reduce their pain. People with chronic pain may use acetaminophen regularly (not simply during painful moments) to help manage their pain.

Safely Using Acetaminophen
Because acetaminophen is gentle on the stomach, some people prefer it over NSAIDs or aspirin. However, acetaminophen has risks just like any other medication, and it can cause serious consequences—even death—when used improperly.

If you take acetaminophen in large doses, it can cause severe liver damage. U.S. Food and Drug Administration figures show that acetaminophen overdoses send approximately 56,000 people to the emergency room each year. Moreover, ProPublica, a public interest journalism organization, reported that an average of 150 Americans die annually from accidental acetaminophen overdoses.

Safely using acetaminophen means taking no more than 3,000 mg per day and no more than 1,000 mg at one time. Be especially cautious when taking extra-strength acetaminophen pills, which include as much as 650 mg per pill.

If you’re concerned about how much acetaminophen you can safely take for your back and neck pain, talk to your doctor or pharmacist. Make sure to tell your healthcare provider about all the medications you’re taking, as acetaminophen may be included in others without you knowing it. You’ll also want to discuss your alcohol consumption, as that can elevate your risk for adverse reactions.

More Acetaminophen Resources
Acetaminophen can be a safe and effective part of your arsenal against back and neck pain. While this medication is one of the most common treatments for spine pain, it’s not without risks. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about all the medications and supplements you’re taking to ensure your regimen supports your long-term health. You can learn more about this medication, including dosage details and safety information, in this Acetaminophen Patient Guide.

Updated on: 07/25/17
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NSAIDs for Neck or Back Pain: Helpful or Harmful to You?
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NSAIDs for Neck or Back Pain: Helpful or Harmful to You?

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