Use of topical nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to treat chronic musculoskeletal conditions has become widely accepted because they can provide pain relief without associated systemic adverse events. This review is an update of 'Topical NSAIDs for chronic musculoskeletal pain in adults', originally published in Issue 9, 2012.
To review the evidence from randomised, double-blind, controlled trials on the efficacy and safety of topically applied NSAIDs for chronic musculoskeletal pain in adults.
We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, EMBASE, and our own in-house database; the date of the last search was February 2016. We also searched the references lists of included studies and reviews, and sought unpublished studies by asking personal contacts and searching online clinical trial registers and manufacturers' web sites.
We included randomised, double-blind, active or inert carrier (placebo) controlled trials in which treatments were administered to adults with chronic musculoskeletal pain of moderate or severe intensity. Studies had to meet stringent quality criteria and there had to be at least 10 participants in each treatment arm, with application of treatment at least once daily.
Two review authors independently assessed studies for inclusion and extracted data. We used numbers of participants achieving each outcome to calculate risk ratio and numbers needed to treat (NNT) or harm (NNH) compared to carrier or other active treatment. We were particularly interested to compare different formulations (gel, cream, plaster) of individual NSAIDs. The primary outcome was 'clinical success', defined as at least a 50% reduction in pain, or an equivalent measure such as a 'very good' or 'excellent' global assessment of treatment, or 'none' or 'slight' pain on rest or movement, measured on a categorical scale.
We identified five new studies for this update, which now has information from 10,631 participants in 39 studies, a 38% increase in participants from the earlier review; 33 studies compared a topical NSAID with carrier. All studies examined topical NSAIDs for treatment of osteoarthritis, and for pooled analyses studies were generally of moderate or high methodological quality, although we considered some at risk of bias from short duration and small size.In studies lasting 6 to 12 weeks, topical diclofenac and topical ketoprofen were significantly more effective than carrier for reducing pain; about 60% of participants had much reduced pain. With topical diclofenac, the NNT for clinical success in six trials (2343 participants) was 9.8 (95% confidence interval (CI) 7.1 to 16) (moderate quality evidence). With topical ketoprofen, the NNT for clinical success in four trials (2573 participants) was 6.9 (5.4 to 9.3) (moderate quality evidence). There was too little information for analysis of other individual topical NSAIDs compared with carrier. Few trials compared a topical NSAID to an oral NSAID, but overall they showed similar efficacy (low quality evidence). These efficacy results were almost completely derived from people with knee osteoarthritis.There was an increase in local adverse events (mostly mild skin reactions) with topical diclofenac compared with carrier or oral NSAIDs, but no increase with topical ketoprofen (moderate quality evidence). Reporting of systemic adverse events (such as gastrointestinal upsets) was poor, but where reported there was no difference between topical NSAID and carrier (very low quality evidence). Serious adverse events were infrequent and not different between topical NSAID and carrier (very low quality evidence).Clinical success with carrier occurred commonly - in around half the participants in studies lasting 6 to 12 weeks. Both direct and indirect comparison of clinical success with oral placebo indicates that response rates with carrier (topical placebo) are about twice those seen with oral placebo.A substantial amount of data from completed, unpublished studies was unavailable (up to 6000 participants). To the best of our knowledge, much of this probably relates to formulations that have never been marketed.
Topical diclofenac and topical ketoprofen can provide good levels of pain relief beyond carrier in osteoarthritis for a minority of people, but there is no evidence for other chronic painful conditions. There is emerging evidence that at least some of the substantial placebo effects seen in longer duration studies derive from effects imparted by the NSAID carrier itself, and that NSAIDs add to that.