Harvard Men's Health Watch

Acetaminophen: Minimal relief for knee arthritis pain

The pain from an arthritic knee can be intense, limiting daily activities and independence. Men can try a range of medications, but overall acetaminophen (Tylenol, other brands) appears to relieve pain only slightly better than a placebo pill, according to a research review in Annals of Internal Medicine.

The researchers pooled results from 137 randomized clinical trials involving about 33,000 people with knee arthritis and compared the relative effectiveness of the following treatments:

  • acetaminophen

  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including prescription versions as well as the widely used over-the-counter NSAIDs ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve)

  • injections into the knee of an anesthetic steroid medication or hyaluronic acid, a lubricating fluid

  • inactive placebo treatments, in the form of either a pill or an injection.

Every treatment relieved pain better than placebo, but acetaminophen did so only barely. Still, some people say that they get pain relief from acetaminophen. Because it's a relatively safe drug at the right doses, it may still be worth trying before moving on to other options.

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