What is the role of medications in the treatment of mechanical low back pain?

Updated: Mar 30, 2020
  • Author: Everett C Hills, MD, MS; Chief Editor: Stephen Kishner, MD, MHA  more...
  • Print

Pharmacological interventions for the relief of low back pain (LBP) include acetaminophen, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), topical analgesics, muscle relaxants, opioids, corticosteroids, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants.

Acetaminophen remains one of the best first-line treatments of acute LBP. It is generally well tolerated, has few adverse effects or drug reactions with other medications, and is inexpensive. Acetaminophen is as effective as aspirin; however, overdoses can result in fatal hepatic injury. The maximum advised dose is 4 g/d.

NSAIDs are the most frequently prescribed analgesic medications for mechanical LBP worldwide. A review of the Cochrane Controlled Trials Registry found 51 randomized control trials (involving 6057 patients) comparing different NSAIDs for the treatment of acute mechanical LBP. [39] NSAIDs were found to be effective for short-term symptomatic relief. No specific type was shown to be clearly more effective than the others. Insufficient evidence was found for effective analgesic control in chronic LBP.

NSAIDs augmented with muscle relaxants are a standard medical prescription for LBP in the primary care setting. These agents should be prescribed on a scheduled basis, rather than as needed, for optimal analgesia. Patients on combined NSAIDs and muscle relaxants report reduction of symptoms at 1 week, which is less than when compared with either drug alone. The optimum combination of NSAIDs and muscle relaxants remains to be determined.

Topically applied lidocaine patches (Lidoderm 5% patch) have provided a reduction in pain intensity and pain relief in clinical trials of patients with acute pain.

Opioid medications are mainstays for short-term treatment of severe pain. Their role in the long-term care of patients with mechanical LBP is the subject of intense investigations. Transdermal opioid (fentanyl) has been shown to compare favorably to oral long-acting opioids. Concerns about drug diversion and abuse continue to cloud the benefits of long-term opioid use for LBP.

Corticosteroids may play a role in the treatment of mechanical LBP with acute radiculopathic features of radiating pain down one or both legs.

Antidepressants are thought to be effective when a component of depression is accompanying the mechanical LBP. Antidepressants may contribute to improving the disruption in sleep that patients frequently mention as a part of the constellation of symptoms resulting from LBP.

The basic mechanism of anticonvulsants is to stabilize neural membranes. This concept has been used to support the use of anticonvulsants for adjunct analgesia suspected to come from neuropathic causes.

Botulinum toxin type A has been investigated for pain relief in several small studies. The toxin temporarily paralyzes the lumbar muscles, which may be creating spasms that contribute to the generation of LBP.

Clinicians have found that long-acting oral opioids can be rotated periodically (eg q6-12mo) to maintain effectiveness. The molecular structures of these compounds may be sufficiently different to opioid receptors to counter the affects of diminished and down-regulation of receptors to chronic opioid exposure.

Pharmaceutical companies are exploring various combinations of NSAIDs/opioids, extended-release formulations, and drug delivery (eg topical, mucosal) in an effort to achieve safe and effective pain control.

Did this answer your question?
Additional feedback? (Optional)
Thank you for your feedback!