An alternative to oral NSAIDs for acute musculoskeletal injuries

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A topical NSAID can relieve acute musculoskeletal pain, with little risk of side effects.




For patients with acute musculoskeletal injuries, topical NSAIDs are an effective alternative for pain relief.1


A: Based on a meta-analysis of 47 high-quality randomized clinical trials.

Massey T, Derry S, Moore RA, et al. Topical NSAIDs for acute pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(6):CD007402.


A 47-year-old man limps into your office complaining of ankle pain. The patient is well known to you and has a long history of dyspepsia, which is aggravated when he takes any oral nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). He injured his ankle while playing basketball. You diagnose acute ankle sprain. Would a topical NSAID be a safe option for pain relief for this patient?

Patients with tendon and ligament injuries often see their family physician for care. Rest, ice, compression, elevation (RICE) therapy is first-line treatment for these injuries.2 Oral NSAIDs, such as diclofenac, piroxicam, and ibuprofen reduce swelling and lead to a more rapid return to activity than RICE alone in patients with ankle sprains,3 and relieve pain associated with muscle strains, too. Acetaminophen provides comparable pain relief and resumption of normal activities.4

Help for those who can’t take oral NSAIDs
Oral NSAIDs, however, are contraindicated for patients with a history of gastrointestinal bleeding and must be used cautiously in those with chronic kidney disease. Some patients can’t tolerate the adverse effects, which may include stomach upset, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Others may have medication interactions that prohibit use of oral NSAIDs.

Numerous high-quality, randomized, double-blinded placebo-controlled trials of topical NSAIDs have been conducted in recent years, involving diclofenac—the only topical NSAID available in the United States— as well as other topical agents on the market outside of this country. A recent Cochrane review, detailed below, assessed the efficacy of topical NSAIDs for patients with acute musculoskeletal injuries.

STUDY SUMMARY: Topical NSAIDs provided significant relief

This meta-analysis of 47 high-quality, randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trials included 3455 patients with acute strain, sprain, sport, or overuse injuries.1 Four of the 47 trials, with a total of 746 participants, studied topical diclofenac.

There was significant heterogeneity in the studies included in the review, but each arm of every trial had at least 10 participants >16 years of age with a painful musculoskeletal injury sustained within the previous 48 hours. To be included in the Cochrane meta-analysis, participants had to have used a topical NSAID at least once a day for ≥3 days.

The primary outcome measure was a reduction in pain ≥50% from baseline. Post-treatment data were obtained approximately 7 days after the injury. Of the patients receiving any topical NSAID, 65% (1181/1822) had successful treatment, compared with 43% (695/1633) receiving a placebo. The number needed to treat (NNT) with a topical NSAID instead of placebo was 4.5 (95% confidence interval, 3.9-5.3) to reduce pain ≥50%.

For patients using topical diclofenac, 52% (166/319) had a 50% reduction in pain, vs 25% (77/307) using a topical placebo. The NNT for topical diclofenac was 3.7, about the same as for oral NSAIDs.5

Adverse events were rare in the topical NSAID group: 6.3% had a local adverse event such as a skin reaction vs 5.9% in the topical placebo group. There were no systemic adverse events with topical diclofenac. While all topical NSAIDs combined showed a few minor adverse events compared with placebo, no serious systemic events were reported.

WHAT’S NEW: Topical NSAIDs are a useful alternative

Patients now have another option when seeking treatment for acute musculoskeletal pain. In addition to those who are unable to take oral NSAIDs, some patients may prefer a topical preparation because of perceived or actual side effects and safety profiles.

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