Over-the-counter pills such as ibuprofen are rarely effective when it comes to relieving chronic back pain, scientists have discovered.
In a ground breaking new study, just one patient in six achieved any significant pain relief.
Doctors say concentrating on exercise programmes to boost our core muscles, therefore strengthening the back, is much more effective.
An estimated sixth of the UK population suffers from back pain at any one time, costing the economy up to ?1billion a year.
Back, neck and muscle problems led to a staggering 31 million days of work being lost last year, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Associate Professor Manuela Ferreira, of the George Institute for Global Health in Australia, which carried out the new study, said: “Back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide and is commonly managed by prescribing medicines such as anti-inflammatories.
“But our results show anti-inflammatory drugs actually only provide very limited short-term pain relief. They do reduce the level of pain, but only very slightly, and arguably not of any clinical significance.
“When you factor in the side effects which are very common, it becomes clear that these drugs are not the answer to providing pain relief to the many millions who suffer from this debilitating condition every year.”
Physiotherapists welcomed the study’s findings, pointing out that exercise can often be the key to tackling the problem. Tim Hutchful, of the British Chiropractic Association, said: “I would agree with the research that prevention is always better than cure when it comes to back pain.
“Modern lifestyles are putting increasing amounts of strain on our backs and necks, so it’s important that people incorporate simple steps into their daily routine to maintain a healthy posture and take proactive measures to protect their back health before it starts to affect their daily lives. For example, people are often surprised at the positive impact that simply ensuring you take regular breaks when sitting for long periods of time, or walking regularly, can have on your back.
“The British Chiropractic Association has developed Straighten Up UK, a series of simple daily exercises designed to help people improve their posture and prevent back pain by promoting balance, strength and flexibility in the spine.”
The study, which examined 35 trials involving more than 6,000 people, also found patients taking anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen were 2.5 times more likely to suffer gastrointestinal problems such as stomach ulcers and bleeding.
Research Fellow Gustavo Machado, of the School of Medicine at the University of Sydney, said: “Millions are taking drugs that not only don’t work very well, they’re causing harm. We need treatments that will actually provide substantial relief of these people’s symptoms.
“Better still we need a stronger focus on preventing back pain in the first place. We know that education and exercise programmes can substantially reduce the risk of developing low back pain.”
Traditionally, sufferers who go to their GP are treated through a combination of physiotherapy and paracetamol – although recent studies show the latter is also ineffectual.
Surgery is usually an option only in extreme cases.
The study is published in Annals Of The Rheumatic Diseases.