Study suggests paracetamol largely ineffective for treating many conditions

A million paracetamol tablets are prescribed in New Zealand every day - but do they actually work?

A new study has found paracetamol may be no better than a placebo for treating many conditions.

When in pain, we often reach for paracetamol.

But when Sydney University researchers analysed data on the effectiveness of paracetamol, they found it only helped four out of 44 painful conditions.

Lead author Dr Christina Addel Shaheed told Newshub that even those four conditions aren't helped hugely.

"We only have compelling evidence that it's effective in those four conditions but even then the effects are quite small - and not much greater than we observed with placebo."

It was found to help knee or hip osteoarthritis, pain after skull surgery, tension headaches and perineal pain after childbirth.

For most other conditions, evidence was low-quality or inconclusive.

For treating acute lower back pain, there's strong evidence paracetamol simply does not work.

It comes as no surprise to some pain sufferers. Sister Mary-Lynne Cochrane says paracetamol does nothing for her back pain.

A million paracetamol are prescribed to Kiwis each day - and that's just the prescribed ones.

Many more are bought off the shelf.

Professor Chris Maher from the Australian Institute of Musculoskeletal Health says people should be careful when they take it. 

"If there are other options, go with the other options. For back pain don't bother taking it."

But don't ditch your paracetamol just yet.

"Where there's uncertain evidence, which is the vast majority of pain conditions then paracetamol still has a role to play in clinical practice and people should consider it as first-line treatment for mild to moderate pain," says Dr Shaheed.

They might make you feel better and researchers aren't recommending stronger painkillers as an alternative.