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Topical analgesics for acute and chronic pain in adults - an overview of Cochrane Reviews

Overview of attention for article published in Cochrane database of systematic reviews, May 2017
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  • In the top 5% of all research outputs scored by Altmetric
  • High Attention Score compared to outputs of the same age (99th percentile)
  • High Attention Score compared to outputs of the same age and source (99th percentile)

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56 news outlets
6 blogs
1 policy source
178 tweeters
15 Facebook pages


120 Dimensions

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468 Mendeley
1 CiteULike
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Topical analgesics for acute and chronic pain in adults - an overview of Cochrane Reviews
Published in
Cochrane database of systematic reviews, May 2017
DOI 10.1002/14651858.cd008609.pub2
Pubmed ID

Sheena Derry, Philip J Wiffen, Eija A Kalso, Rae Frances Bell, Dominic Aldington, Tudor Phillips, Helen Gaskell, R Andrew Moore


Topical analgesic drugs are used for a variety of painful conditions. Some are acute, typically strains or sprains, tendinopathy, or muscle aches. Others are chronic, typically osteoarthritis of hand or knee, or neuropathic pain. To provide an overview of the analgesic efficacy and associated adverse events of topical analgesics (primarily nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), salicylate rubefacients, capsaicin, and lidocaine) applied to intact skin for the treatment of acute and chronic pain in adults. We identified systematic reviews in acute and chronic pain published to February 2017 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (the Cochrane Library). The primary outcome was at least 50% pain relief (participant-reported) at an appropriate duration. We extracted the number needed to treat for one additional beneficial outcome (NNT) for efficacy outcomes for each topical analgesic or formulation, and the number needed to treat for one additional harmful outcome (NNH) for adverse events. We also extracted information on withdrawals due to lack of efficacy or adverse events, systemic and local adverse events, and serious adverse events. We required information from at least 200 participants, in at least two studies. We judged that there was potential for publication bias if the addition of four studies of typical size (400 participants) with zero effect increased NNT compared with placebo to 10 (minimal clinical utility). We extracted GRADE assessment in the original papers, and made our own GRADE assessment. Thirteen Cochrane Reviews (206 studies with around 30,700 participants) assessed the efficacy and harms from a range of topical analgesics applied to intact skin in a number of acute and chronic painful conditions. Reviews were overseen by several Review Groups, and concentrated on evidence comparing topical analgesic with topical placebo; comparisons of topical and oral analgesics were rare.For at least 50% pain relief, we considered evidence was moderate or high quality for several therapies, based on the underlying quality of studies and susceptibility to publication bias.In acute musculoskeletal pain (strains and sprains) with assessment at about seven days, therapies were diclofenac Emulgel (78% Emulgel, 20% placebo; 2 studies, 314 participants, NNT 1.8 (95% confidence interval 1.5 to 2.1)), ketoprofen gel (72% ketoprofen, 33% placebo, 5 studies, 348 participants, NNT 2.5 (2.0 to 3.4)), piroxicam gel (70% piroxicam, 47% placebo, 3 studies, 522 participants, NNT 4.4 (3.2 to 6.9)), diclofenac Flector plaster (63% Flector, 41% placebo, 4 studies, 1030 participants, NNT 4.7 (3.7 to 6.5)), and diclofenac other plaster (88% diclofenac plaster, 57% placebo, 3 studies, 474 participants, NNT 3.2 (2.6 to 4.2)).In chronic musculoskeletal pain (mainly hand and knee osteoarthritis) therapies were topical diclofenac preparations for less than six weeks (43% diclofenac, 23% placebo, 5 studies, 732 participants, NNT 5.0 (3.7 to 7.4)), ketoprofen over 6 to 12 weeks (63% ketoprofen, 48% placebo, 4 studies, 2573 participants, NNT 6.9 (5.4 to 9.3)), and topical diclofenac preparations over 6 to 12 weeks (60% diclofenac, 50% placebo, 4 studies, 2343 participants, NNT 9.8 (7.1 to 16)). In postherpetic neuralgia, topical high-concentration capsaicin had moderate-quality evidence of limited efficacy (33% capsaicin, 24% placebo, 2 studies, 571 participants, NNT 11 (6.1 to 62)).We judged evidence of efficacy for other therapies as low or very low quality. Limited evidence of efficacy, potentially subject to publication bias, existed for topical preparations of ibuprofen gels and creams, unspecified diclofenac formulations and diclofenac gel other than Emulgel, indomethacin, and ketoprofen plaster in acute pain conditions, and for salicylate rubefacients for chronic pain conditions. Evidence for other interventions (other topical NSAIDs, topical salicylate in acute pain conditions, low concentration capsaicin, lidocaine, clonidine for neuropathic pain, and herbal remedies for any condition) was very low quality and typically limited to single studies or comparisons with sparse data.We assessed the evidence on withdrawals as moderate or very low quality, because of small numbers of events. In chronic pain conditions lack of efficacy withdrawals were lower with topical diclofenac (6%) than placebo (9%) (11 studies, 3455 participants, number needed to treat to prevent (NNTp) 26, moderate-quality evidence), and topical salicylate (2% vs 7% for placebo) (5 studies, 501 participants, NNTp 21, very low-quality evidence). Adverse event withdrawals were higher with topical capsaicin low-concentration (15%) than placebo (3%) (4 studies, 477 participants, NNH 8, very low-quality evidence), topical salicylate (5% vs 1% for placebo) (7 studies, 735 participants, NNH 26, very low-quality evidence), and topical diclofenac (5% vs 4% for placebo) (12 studies, 3552 participants, NNH 51, very low-quality evidence).In acute pain, systemic or local adverse event rates with topical NSAIDs (4.3%) were no greater than with topical placebo (4.6%) (42 studies, 6740 participants, high quality evidence). In chronic pain local adverse events with topical capsaicin low concentration (63%) were higher than topical placebo (5 studies, 557 participants, number needed to treat for harm (NNH) 2.6), high quality evidence. Moderate-quality evidence indicated more local adverse events than placebo in chronic pain conditions with topical diclofenac (NNH 16) and local pain with topical capsaicin high-concentration (NNH 16). There was moderate-quality evidence of no additional local adverse events with topical ketoprofen over topical placebo in chronic pain. Serious adverse events were rare (very low-quality evidence).GRADE assessments of moderate or low quality in some of the reviews were considered by us to be very low because of small numbers of participants and events. There is good evidence that some formulations of topical diclofenac and ketoprofen are useful in acute pain conditions such as sprains or strains, with low (good) NNT values. There is a strong message that the exact formulation used is critically important in acute conditions, and that might also apply to other pain conditions. In chronic musculoskeletal conditions with assessments over 6 to 12 weeks, topical diclofenac and ketoprofen had limited efficacy in hand and knee osteoarthritis, as did topical high-concentration capsaicin in postherpetic neuralgia. Though NNTs were higher, this still indicates that a small proportion of people had good pain relief.Use of GRADE in Cochrane Reviews with small numbers of participants and events requires attention.

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Mendeley readers

The data shown below were compiled from readership statistics for 468 Mendeley readers of this research output. Click here to see the associated Mendeley record.

Geographical breakdown

Country Count As %
Finland 1 <1%
Italy 1 <1%
Unknown 466 100%

Demographic breakdown

Readers by professional status Count As %
Student > Master 73 16%
Student > Bachelor 45 10%
Researcher 44 9%
Other 42 9%
Student > Ph. D. Student 31 7%
Other 98 21%
Unknown 135 29%
Readers by discipline Count As %
Medicine and Dentistry 149 32%
Nursing and Health Professions 51 11%
Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmaceutical Science 28 6%
Agricultural and Biological Sciences 12 3%
Psychology 12 3%
Other 68 15%
Unknown 148 32%

Attention Score in Context

This research output has an Altmetric Attention Score of 581. This is our high-level measure of the quality and quantity of online attention that it has received. This Attention Score, as well as the ranking and number of research outputs shown below, was calculated when the research output was last mentioned on 14 August 2022.
All research outputs
of 22,174,997 outputs
Outputs from Cochrane database of systematic reviews
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Outputs of similar age
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Outputs of similar age from Cochrane database of systematic reviews
of 244 outputs
Altmetric has tracked 22,174,997 research outputs across all sources so far. Compared to these this one has done particularly well and is in the 99th percentile: it's in the top 5% of all research outputs ever tracked by Altmetric.
So far Altmetric has tracked 12,202 research outputs from this source. They typically receive a lot more attention than average, with a mean Attention Score of 29.9. This one has done particularly well, scoring higher than 99% of its peers.
Older research outputs will score higher simply because they've had more time to accumulate mentions. To account for age we can compare this Altmetric Attention Score to the 285,290 tracked outputs that were published within six weeks on either side of this one in any source. This one has done particularly well, scoring higher than 99% of its contemporaries.
We're also able to compare this research output to 244 others from the same source and published within six weeks on either side of this one. This one has done particularly well, scoring higher than 99% of its contemporaries.