Background: Lateral elbow pain, or tennis elbow, is a common condition that causes pain in the elbow and forearm. Although self-limiting, it can be associated with significant disability and often results in work absence. It is often treated with topical and oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). This is an update of a review first published in 2002 (search date October 11, 2012).
Objectives: To assess the benefits and harms of topical and oral NSAIDs for treating people with lateral elbow pain.
Search methods: We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, MEDLINE, CINAHL, EMBASE and SciSearch up to October 11, 2012. No language restriction was applied.
Selection criteria: Studies were included if they were randomised or quasi-randomised controlled trials (RCTs or CCTs) that compared topical or oral NSAIDs with placebo or another intervention, or compared two NSAIDs in adults with lateral elbow pain. Outcomes of interest were pain, function, quality of life, pain-free grip strength, overall treatment success, work loss and adverse effects.
Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently selected the studies for inclusion, extracted the data, and performed a risk of bias assessment.
Main results: Fifteen trials, involving 759 participants and reporting 17 comparisons, were included in the review. Four new trials identified from the updated search were included, along with 11 of 14 trials included in the original review (three trials included in the previous review were found not to meet inclusion criteria). Of eight trials that studied topical NSAIDs (301 participants), five compared topical NSAIDs with placebo, one compared manipulative therapy and topical NSAIDs with manipulative therapy alone, one compared leech therapy with topical NSAIDs and one compared two different topical NSAIDs. Of seven trials that investigated oral NSAIDs (437 participants), two compared oral NSAIDs with placebo, one compared oral NSAIDs and bandaging with bandaging alone, three compared oral NSAIDs with glucocorticoid injection, one compared oral NSAIDs with a vasodilator and two compared two different oral NSAIDs. No trials directly compared topical NSAIDs with oral NSAIDs. Few trials used intention-to-treat analysis, and the sample size of most was small. The median follow-up was 2 weeks (range 1 week to 1 year).Low-quality evidence was obtained from three trials (153 participants) suggesting that topical NSAIDs were significantly more effective than placebo with respect to pain in the short term (mean difference -1.64, 95% confidence interval (CI) -2.42 to -0.86) and number needed to treat to benefit (7 (95% CI 3 to 21) on a 0 to 10 scale). Low-quality evidence was obtained from one trial (85 participants) indicating that significantly more participants report fair, good or excellent effectiveness with topical NSAIDs versus placebo at 28 days (14 days of therapy) (risk ratio (RR) 1.49, 95% CI 1.04 to 2.14). No participants withdrew as the result of adverse events, but some studies reported mild adverse effects such as rash in 2.5% of those exposed to topical NSAIDs compared with 1.3% of those exposed to placebo.Low-quality and conflicting evidence regarding the benefits of oral NSAIDs obtained from two trials could not be pooled. One trial found significantly greater improvement in pain compared with placebo, and the other trial found no between-group differences; neither trial found differences in function. One trial reported a withdrawal due to adverse effects for a participant in the NSAIDs group. Use of oral NSAIDs was associated with increased risk of gastrointestinal side effects compared with placebo in one trial in the review. Another trial reported discontinuation of treatment due to gastrointestinal side effects in four participants taking NSAIDs, and another participant developed an allergic reaction in response to oral NSAIDs.Very scant and conflicting evidence regarding the comparative effects of oral NSAIDs and glucocorticoid injection was obtained. One trial reported a significant improvement in pain with glucocorticoid injection, and another found no between-group differences; treatment success was similar between groups (RR of fair, good or excellent effectiveness 0.74; 95% CI 0.43 to 1.26). Transient pain may occur following injection.
Authors' conclusions: There remains limited evidence from which to draw firm conclusions about the benefits or harms of topical or oral NSAIDs in treating lateral elbow pain. Although data from five placebo-controlled trials suggest that topical NSAIDs may be beneficial in improving pain (for up to 4 weeks), non-normal distribution of data and other methodological issues precluded firm conclusions. Some people may expect a mild transient skin rash. Evidence about the benefits of oral NSAIDs has been conflicting, although oral NSAID use may result in gastrointestinal adverse effects in some people. No direct comparisons between oral and topical NSAIDs were available. Some trials demonstrated greater benefit from glucocorticoid injection than from NSAIDs in the short term, but this was not apparent in all studies and was not apparent by 6 months in the only study that included longer-term outcomes.