Acute gout: Oral steroids work as well as NSAIDs

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Prednisone is a safe and effective alternative when NSAIDs are contraindicated.



Practice changer

Use a short course of oral steroids (prednisone 30-40 mg/d for 5 days) for treatment of acute gout when nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are contraindicated. Steroids are also a reasonable choice as first-line treatment.1,2

Strength of recommendation

B: 2 good-quality, randomized controlled trials (RCTs)

Janssens HJ, Janssen M, van de Lisdonk EH, van Riel PL, van Weel C. Use of oral prednisolone or naproxen for the treatment of gout arthritis: a double-blind, randomized equivalence trial. Lancet. 2008;371:1854-1860.

Man CY, Cheung IT, Cameron PA, Rainer TH. Comparison of oral prednisolone/paracetamol and oral indomethacin/paracetamol combination therapy in the treatment of acute goutlike arthritis: a double-blind, randomized, controlled trial. Ann Emerg Med. 2007;49:670-677.


A 68-year-old man with a history of ulcer disease and mild renal insufficiency comes to your office complaining of severe pain in his right foot. You note swelling and redness around the base of the big toe and diagnose acute gout. Wishing to avoid nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and colchicine because of the patient’s medical history, you wonder what you can safely prescribe for pain relief.

NSAIDs have become the mainstay of treatment for acute gout,3,4 replacing colchicine—widely used for gout pain relief since the early 19th century.5 Colchicine fell out of favor because it routinely causes diarrhea and requires caution in patients with renal insufficiency.6 Now, however, there is growing concern about the adverse effects of NSAIDs.

Comorbidities, age, mean fewer options

NSAIDs increase the risk of gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding, especially in the first week of use.7 Cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) inhibitors, considered as effective as NSAIDs in treating acute gout pain,8 are also associated with GI bleeds.9 In addition, NSAIDs and COX-2 inhibitors increase cardiovascular risks, prompting the American Heart Association to recommend restricted use of both.10 NSAIDs’ effect on renal function, fluid retention, and interactions with anticoagulants are additional concerns, because gout patients are generally older and often have comorbid renal and cardiovascular diseases.3,11-13

In the United States, nearly 70% of patients who develop acute gout seek treatment from primary care physicians.12 Family physicians need a safe alternative to NSAIDs to relieve the severe pain associated with this condition. Will oral corticosteroids fit the bill?

STUDY SUMMARIES: Oral steroids: A safe and effective alternative

Janssens et al1 conducted a double-blind, randomized equivalence trial of 118 patients to compare the efficacy of prednisolone and naproxen for the treatment of monoarticular gout, confirmed by crystal analysis of synovial fluid. The study was conducted in the eastern Netherlands at a trial center patients were referred to by their family physicians. Those with major comorbidities, including a history of GI bleed or peptic ulcer, were excluded.

Participants were randomized to receive either prednisolone 35 mg* or naproxen 500 mg twice a day, with look-alike placebo tablets of the alternate drug, for 5 days. Pain, the primary outcome, was scored on a validated visual analog scale from 0 mm (no pain) to 100 mm (worst pain experienced).15 The reduction in the pain score at 90 hours was similar in both groups. Only a few minor side effects were reported in both groups, and all completely resolved in 3 weeks.

The study by Man et al2 was a randomized trial that compared indomethacin with oral prednisolone in 90 patients presenting to an emergency department in Hong Kong. Diagnosis of gout was made by clinical impression. Participants in the indomethacin group also received an intramuscular (IM) injection of diclofenac 75 mg, and those in both groups were monitored for acetaminophen use as a secondary endpoint.

Pain reduction, the primary endpoint, was assessed with a 10-point visual analog score, and was slightly better statistically in the oral steroid group. The study was not designed to evaluate for safety, but the authors noted that patients in the indomethacin group experienced more adverse effects (number needed to harm [NNH] for any adverse event: 3; NNH for serious events: 6).

Short-term steroids have few side effects

In both studies, patients receiving oral steroids experienced no significant side effects. This finding is consistent with other studies that have investigated short-term oral steroid use in the treatment of both rheumatoid arthritis and asthma.16,17


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