Clinical Inquiries

Are topical nitrates safe and effective for upper extremity tendinopathies?

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Topical nitrates provide short-term relief with some side effects, especially headache. Topical nitroglycerin (NTG) patches improve subjective pain scores by about 30% and range of motion over 3 days in patients with acute shoulder tendinopathy (strength of recommendation [SOR]: C, small randomized controlled trial [RCT] with no methodologic flaws).

NTG patches, when combined with tendon rehabilitation, improve subjective pain ratings by about 30% and shoulder strength by about 10% in patients with chronic shoulder tendinopathy over 3 to 6 months, but not in the long term (SOR: C, RCTs with methodologic flaws). They improve pain and strength 15% to 50% for chronic extensor tendinosis of the elbow over a 6-month period (SOR: C, small RCT with methodologic flaws).

NTG patches used without tendon rehabilitation don’t improve pain or strength in chronic lateral epicondylitis over 8 weeks (SOR: C, RCT).

Topical NTG patches commonly produce headaches and rashes (SOR: B, multiple RCTs).


A small RCT found that NTG therapy improved short-term pain and joint mobility in patients with acute supraspinatus tendinitis.1 Investigators randomized 10 men and 10 women with acute shoulder tendonitis (fewer than 7 days’ duration) to use either 5-mg NTG patches or placebo patches daily for 3 days. Patients rated pain on a 10-point scale, and investigators measured joint mobility on a 4-point scale.

After 48 hours of treatment, NTG patches significantly reduced pain ratings from baseline (from 7 to 2 points; P<.001), whereas placebo didn’t (6 vs 6 points; P not significant). NTG patches also improved joint mobility from baseline (from 2 points “moderately restricted” to .1 points “not restricted”; P<.001), but placebo didn’t (1.2 points “mildly restricted” vs 1.2 points; P not significant). The placebo group had less pain and joint restriction than the NTG group at the start of the study. Two patients reported headache 24 hours after starting treatment.

Evidence-based answers from the Family Physicians Inquiries Network

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