Topical NSAIDs for chronic musculoskeletal pain: systematic review and meta-analysis

BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2004 Aug 19:5:28. doi: 10.1186/1471-2474-5-28.


: A previous systematic review reported that topical NSAIDs were effective in relieving pain in chronic conditions like osteoarthritis and tendinitis. More trials, a better understanding of trial quality and bias, and a reclassification of certain drugs necessitate a new review.

Methods: Studies were identified by searching electronic databases, and writing to manufacturers. We identified randomised, double blind trials comparing topical NSAID with either placebo or another active treatment, in adults with chronic pain. The primary outcome was a reduction in pain of approximately 50% at two weeks, and secondary outcomes were local and systemic adverse events and adverse event-related withdrawals. Relative benefit and number-needed-to-treat (NNT), and relative harm and number-needed-to-harm (NNH) were calculated, and the effects of trial quality, validity and size, outcome reported, and condition treated, were examined by sensitivity analyses.

Results: Twelve new trials were added to 13 trials from a previous review. Fourteen double blind placebo-controlled trials had information from almost 1,500 patients. Topical NSAID was significantly better than placebo with relative benefit 1.9 (95% confidence interval 1.7 to 2.2), NNT 4.6 (95% confidence interval 3.8 to 5.9). Results were not affected by trial quality, validity or size, outcome reported, or condition treated. Three trials with 764 patients comparing a topical with an oral NSAID found no difference in efficacy. Local adverse events (6%), systemic adverse events (3%), or the numbers withdrawing due to an adverse event were the same for topical NSAID and placebo.

Conclusions: Topical NSAIDs were effective and safe in treating chronic musculoskeletal conditions for two weeks. Larger and longer trials are necessary to fully elucidate the place of topical NSAIDs in clinical practice.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Topical
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / administration & dosage*
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / therapeutic use*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Humans
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases / drug therapy*
  • Pain, Intractable / drug therapy*


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal