The efficacy and safety of paracetamol for pain relief: an overview of systematic reviews

Med J Aust. 2021 Apr;214(7):324-331. doi: 10.5694/mja2.50992. Epub 2021 Mar 30.


Objective: To evaluate the efficacy and safety of paracetamol as an analgesic medication in a range of painful conditions.

Study design: Systematic review of systematic reviews of the analgesic effects of paracetamol in randomised, placebo-controlled trials. Conduct of systematic reviews was assessed with AMSTAR-2; confidence in effect estimates (quality of evidence) was assessed with the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE) criteria.

Data sources: MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews; systematic reviews published 1 January 2010 - 30 April 2020.

Data synthesis: We extracted pain and adverse events outcomes from 36 systematic reviews that assessed the efficacy of paracetamol in 44 painful conditions. Continuous pain outcomes were expressed as mean differences (MDs; standardised 0-10-point scale); dichotomous outcomes were expressed as risk ratios (RRs). There is high quality evidence that paracetamol provides modest pain relief for people with knee or hip osteoarthritis (MD, -0.3 points; 95% CI, -0.6 to -0.1 points) and after craniotomy (MD, -0.8 points; 95% CI, -1.4 to -0.2 points); there is moderate quality evidence for its efficacy in tension-type headache (pain-free at 2 hours: RR, 1.3; 95% CI, 1.1-1.4) and perineal pain soon after childbirth (patients experiencing 50% pain relief: RR, 2.4; 95% CI, 1.5-3.8). There is high quality evidence that paracetamol is not effective for relieving acute low back pain (MD, 0.2 points; 95% CI, -0.1 to 0.4 points). Evidence regarding efficacy in other conditions was of low or very low quality. Frequency of adverse events was generally similar for people receiving placebo or paracetamol, except that transient elevation of blood liver enzyme levels was more frequent during repeated administration of paracetamol to patients with spinal pain (RR, 3.8; 95% CI, 1.9-7.4).

Conclusions: For most conditions, evidence regarding the effectiveness of paracetamol is insufficient for drawing firm conclusions. Evidence for its efficacy in four conditions was moderate to strong, and there is strong evidence that paracetamol is not effective for reducing acute low back pain. Investigations that evaluate more typical dosing regimens are required.

Prospero registration: CRD42015029282 (prospective).

Keywords: Analgesia; Medicine; Systematic review; traditional.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetaminophen / administration & dosage
  • Acetaminophen / adverse effects
  • Acetaminophen / therapeutic use*
  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / administration & dosage
  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / adverse effects
  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / therapeutic use
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Craniotomy
  • Data Management
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / drug therapy
  • Osteoarthritis / drug therapy
  • Pain / drug therapy*
  • Pain Management / methods*
  • Placebos / administration & dosage
  • Prospective Studies
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Safety
  • Tension-Type Headache / drug therapy
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic
  • Placebos
  • Acetaminophen