Topical therapies for osteoarthritis

Roy D. Altman, H. Richard Barthel

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

76 Scopus citations


This review discusses the pharmacology, analgesic efficacy, safety and tolerability of topical NSAIDs, salicylates and capsaicin for the management of osteoarthritis (OA) pain. Topical therapies present a valuable therapeutic option for OA pain management, with substantial evidence supporting the efficacy and safety of topical NSAIDs, but less robust support for capsaicin and salicylates. We define topical therapies as those intended to act locally, in contrast to transdermal therapies intended to act systemically.Oral therapies for patients with mild to moderate OA pain include paracetamol (acetaminophen) and NSAIDs. Paracetamol has only weak efficacy at therapeutic doses and is hepatotoxic at doses >3.25gday. NSAIDs have demonstrated efficacy in patients with OA, but are associated with dose-, duration-and age-dependent risks of gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, renal, haematological and hepatic adverse events (AEs), as well as clinically meaningful drug interactions. To minimize AE risks, treatment guidelines for OA suggest minimizing NSAID exposure by prescribing the lowest effective dose for the shortest duration of time. Systemic NSAID exposure may also be limited by prescribing topical NSAIDs, particularly in patients with OA pain limited to a few superficial joints.Topical NSAIDs have been available in Europe for decades and were introduced to provide localized analgesia with minimal systemic NSAID exposure. Guidelines of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, European League Against Rheumatism (EULAR), Osteoarthritis Research Society International, and National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) state that topical NSAIDs may be considered for patients with mild to moderate OA of the knee or hand, particularly in patients with few affected joints andor a history of sensitivity to oral NSAIDs. In fact, the EULAR and NICE guidelines state that topical NSAIDs should be considered before oral therapies. Clinical trials of topical NSAIDs, most notably formulations of diclofenac and ketoprofen, have shown efficacy significantly superior to placebo and similar to oral NSAIDs. Most topical NSAIDs (piroxicam being the exception) have shown improved safety and tolerability compared with oral NSAIDs. Topical salicylates and capsaicin are available in the US without a prescription, but neither has shown substantial efficacy in clinical trials, and both have potential to cause serious AEs. Accidental poisonings have been reported with salicylates, and concerns exist that capsaicin-induced nerve desensitization is not fully reversible and that its autonomic nerve effects may increase the risk of skin ulcers in diabetic patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1259-1279
Number of pages21
Issue number10
StatePublished - Jul 25 2011


  • Aspirin
  • Capsaicin
  • Clopidogrel
  • Corticosteroids
  • Diclofenac
  • Drug-interactions
  • Eltenac
  • Felbinac
  • Fenbufen
  • Ibuprofen
  • Ketoprofen
  • Naproxen
  • Nonsteroidal-anti- inflammatories
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Paracetamol
  • Piroxicam
  • Proton-pump-inhibitors
  • Salicylates
  • Serotonin-uptake-inhibitors
  • Topical
  • Warfarin.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology (medical)


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