Efficacy and safety of topical NSAIDs in the management of osteoarthritis: Evidence from real-life setting trials and surveys

Semin Arthritis Rheum. 2016 Feb;45(4 Suppl):S18-21. doi: 10.1016/j.semarthrit.2015.11.007. Epub 2015 Dec 2.


Topical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are recommended in international and national guidelines as an early treatment option for the symptomatic management of knee and hand osteoarthritis (OA), and may be used ahead of oral NSAIDs due to their superior safety profile. The European Society for Clinical and Economic Aspects of Osteoporosis and Osteoarthritis (ESCEO) treatment algorithm recommends topical NSAIDs for knee OA in addition to the pharmacological background of symptomatic slow-acting drugs for osteoarthritis (SYSADOAs) and rescue analgesia with paracetamol and non-pharmacological treatment, if the patient is still symptomatic. Topical NSAIDs have a moderate effect on pain relief, with efficacy similar to that of oral NSAIDs, with the advantage of a better risk:benefit ratio. In real-life studies, topical and oral NSAIDs demonstrate an equivalent effect on knee pain over 1 year of treatment, with fewer adverse events due to lower systemic absorption of topical NSAIDs compared with oral NSAIDs. As a result, topical NSAIDs may be the preferred treatment option, especially in OA patients aged ≥75 years, and those with co-morbidities or at an increased risk of cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, or renal side effects. Furthermore, using topical NSAIDs in inflammatory rheumatic diseases leads to a 40% reduction in the need for concomitant oral NSAIDs. When selecting a topical NSAID, absorption and bioavailability are important because of heterogeneity among topical drug formulations. Molecules like etofenamate have a bioavailability of >20% and evidence for accumulation in synovial tissues, with efficacy demonstrated as improvement in pain and function in real-life studies of OA patients. Diclofenac also shows good efficacy alongside evidence that diclofenac accumulates in the synovium.

Keywords: Hand osteoarthritis; Knee osteoarthritis; Personalized medicine; Topical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Publication types

  • Practice Guideline

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Topical
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / therapeutic use*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Hand Joints
  • Humans
  • Osteoarthritis / drug therapy*
  • Osteoarthritis, Knee / drug therapy
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal