What do we (not) know about how paracetamol (acetaminophen) works?


R. B. Raffa, Temple University School of Pharmacy, 3307 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19140, USA. Tel.: +1 215 707 4976; fax: +1 215 707 5228; e-mail: robert.raffa@temple.edu


What is known and background:  Although paracetamol (acetaminophen), N-(4-Hydroxyphenyl)acetamide, is one of the world’s most widely used analgesics, the mechanism by which it produces its analgesic effect is largely unknown. This lack is relevant because: (i) optimal pain treatment matches the analgesic mechanism to the (patho)physiology of the pain and (ii) modern drug discovery relies on an appropriate screening assay.

Objective:  To review the clinical profile and preclinical studies of paracetamol as means of gaining insight into its mechanism of analgesic action.

Methods:  A literature search was conducted of clinical and preclinical literature and the information obtained was organized and reviewed from the perspective of its contribution to an understanding of the mechanism of analgesic action of paracetamol.

Results:  Paracetamol’s broad spectrum of analgesic and other pharmacological actions is presented, along with its multiple postulated mechanism(s) of action. No one mechanism has been definitively shown to account for its analgesic activity.

What is new and conclusion:  Further research is needed to uncover the mechanism of analgesic action of paracetamol. The lack of this knowledge affects optimal clinical use and impedes drug discovery efforts.