Topical NSAIDs (in the form of gels, sprays or creams) are looking more promising for relief from pain in specific parts of the body. Recent research has shown that they are effective at relieving pain in specific places while reducing overall side effects.
NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are common pain medications. It is actually a large group of specific drugs that share certain properties. Over-the-counter NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen (in some areas). Common prescription medications include diclofenac, indomethacin, and ketoprofen. Regardless of the specific compound, however, all NSAIDs are used to treat pain, inflammation, and sometimes fever.
Over-the-counter NSAIDs are generally used for everyday pain: headaches, muscle aches, and menstrual cramps. Prescription strength NSAIDs are used for more serious conditions, especially various forms of arthritis. The action of these medicines is helpful to the pain and swelling associated with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, though they are often prescribed for other ailments such as gout, tendinitis, and post-surgical pain.
Though NSAIDs often help with pain and swelling, they also result in uncomfortable side effects. The most common side effects of NSAIDs are discomfort in the digestive tract. This may be nausea, gas, diarrhea, or any other form of gastrointestinal upset. In serious case, NSAIDs can also result in ulcers and bleeding of the digestive tract. Doctors have been looking for effective treatment without the nasty side effects.
One option that is showing a lot of promise is the use of topical (or external) application of NSAIDs. By applying the medicine directly to the area needing it, there is a higher concentration of the active ingredients in the affected joints or tissues. It also means that the drugs don’t spread elsewhere in the body as easily, reducing or even eliminating the side effects.
The research covered a review of 34 studies, a total of 7688 adults with joint or muscle pain. In one of these studies, the drug diclofenac was applied to painful joints and reduced pain significantly more than the placebo.
There are some limitations to topical NSAIDs, however. They are best used on specific joint or muscle pain. This might include pain in the hands, feet, elbows and knees. Other conditions such as headache, back pain, or systemic pain like fibromyalgia aren’t likely to benefit from a topical NSAID.
And there are still some critics of topical NSAIDs. Since this class of drug affects hormones (as opposed to local anesthetics which affect the local nerves), topical NSAIDs may not significantly reduce the unpleasant side effects. Some research does support this conclusion. Other critics feel it may be a “placebo effect” that is making the topical NSAIDs work better: patients using the medicine on a specific part of themselves believe that it’s working better, so it does.
Though far from conclusive, this recent research on NSAIDs does give some hope to people suffering from chronic, painful conditions. Having another option to try is often a relief unto itself. And doctors are continuing to study this application of a common medicine.
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