Lack of efficacy of acetaminophen in treating symptomatic knee osteoarthritis: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled comparison trial with diclofenac sodium

Arch Intern Med. 2003 Jan 27;163(2):169-78. doi: 10.1001/archinte.163.2.169.


Background: Recommendations state that acetaminophen should be used in preference to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in the initial treatment of symptomatic osteoarthritis (OA) of the hip or knee, because of lesser toxicity and the pervasive belief that acetaminophen is not only effective in treating OA pain but is of equal analgesic efficacy as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Methods: This was a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of diclofenac sodium, 75 mg twice daily, vs acetaminophen, 1000 mg 4 times daily, in 82 subjects with symptomatic OA of the medial knee. Osteoarthritis was quantitated radiographically, and subjects met stringent baseline pain criteria. The primary evaluation of efficacy used the Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Osteoarthritis Index, with evaluations at screening, baseline, and 2 and 12 weeks after treatment. Intention-to-treat analysis was used.

Results: Twenty-five subjects were randomized to diclofenac, 29 to acetaminophen, and 28 to placebo. The groups were closely matched for age, sex, body mass index, prior use of OA medications, baseline pain, and radiographic features. At 2 and 12 weeks, clinically and statistically significant (P<.001) improvements were seen in the diclofenac-treated group; however, no significant improvements were seen in the acetaminophen-treated group (P =.92 at 2 weeks and.19 at 12 weeks). Stratification of subjects according to baseline pain, prestudy OA medication, and radiographic grade showed no clear pattern of preferential response to diclofenac, and did not reveal a subset of subjects who responded to acetaminophen.

Conclusions: Diclofenac is effective in the symptomatic treatment of OA of the knee, but acetaminophen is not. A review of the literature reveals that there is scanty published evidence for a therapeutic effect of acetaminophen relative to placebo in patients with OA of the knee, because most published studies use active comparators (ie, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) only. The advocacy of acetaminophen use in subjects with OA of the knee should be reconsidered pending further placebo-controlled studies.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acetaminophen / therapeutic use*
  • Aged
  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / therapeutic use*
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / therapeutic use*
  • Diclofenac / therapeutic use*
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Osteoarthritis, Knee / drug therapy*
  • Treatment Failure


  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal
  • Diclofenac
  • Acetaminophen