New acute pain guidelines from the ACP and AAFP have limitations


The American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Family Physicians recently authored a guideline regarding the treatment of acute, non–low back, musculoskeletal injuries in adults in the outpatient setting. While their recommendations mirror what most clinicians currently do in their medical practices, they don’t address the multiple components of pain that include sensory, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral processes in addition to the physical discomfort.

Linda Girgis, MD

Dr. Linda Girgis

According to the authors, musculoskeletal injuries result in more than 65 million medical visits a year with an annual estimated cost of $176.1 billion in 2010.

In summary, the guideline, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is based on a review of the best available evidence. The research reviewed by the guideline authors showed favorable results with topical NSAIDs, oral NSAIDs, oral acetaminophen, acupressure, and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation in reducing pain and/or improving function. The guideline authors “recommend that clinicians treat patients with acute pain from non–low back, musculoskeletal injuries with topical [NSAIDs] with or without gel as first-line therapy to reduce or relieve symptoms, including pain; improve physical function; and improve the patient’s treatment satisfaction (Grade: strong recommendation; moderate-certainty evidence).” Additionally, the guideline recommends against treating acute pain from non–low back, musculoskeletal injuries with opioids, including tramadol (Grade: conditional recommendation; low-certainty evidence).

Additionally, the guideline mentions improving function in relation to decreasing pain, which can be multifactorial. Treating pain requires a multipronged approach. Many patients require more than one therapy to treat their pain, such as NSAIDs plus physical therapy. The ATS and AAFP did not make any recommendations for combination therapies in this guideline.

When physical therapy is needed

Nonopioid pain medications can do a great job of reducing a patient’s physical discomfort, which the evidence for these guideline demonstrates. However, much of the dysfunction caused by musculoskeletal injuries will not improve by reducing the pain alone. Physical therapy, exercise, and mobilization did not show a significant benefit in reducing symptoms in the systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials that appeared alongside the guideline. The type of pain, however, was not evaluated in relation to the effectiveness of these treatments. A fractured bone, for example, may heal just fine with casting and pain management, without the need for additional therapies. However, the muscles surrounding that bone can atrophy and become weak from not being used. Physical therapy may be needed to restrengthen those muscles. Therefore, a multifaceted approach is often needed, even for uncomplicated conditions.

Mental pain often comes with physical pain and this is an aspect of care that is often neglected. It can be quite devastating for patients to not be able to do the things they were previously able to do. While this is easily recognized in professional athletes when they can no longer play, it is not so readily apparent with a mother who is just trying to take care of her kids. As doctors, especially those of us in family medicine, we should be addressing more than just physical pain.

Patients can also do activities that exacerbate their pain. As doctors, we need to be asking questions that help us determine whether a patient’s pain is caused by a particular action. Maybe that increase in shoulder pain is due to nothing more than lifting something heavy rather than a failure in a prescribed medication. Pain diaries are helpful, and clinicians don’t use them often enough.


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