MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Much of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is used in the management of osteoarthritis pain. Yet few of us ever seem to ask whether SCAMs are more or less effective and safe than conventional treatments.

This review determined how many patients with chronic osteoarthritis pain respond to various non-surgical treatments. Published systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that included meta-analysis of responder outcomes for at least 1 of the following interventions were included: acetaminophen, oral nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), topical NSAIDs, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants, cannabinoids, counselling, exercise, platelet-rich plasma, viscosupplementation (intra-articular injections usually with hyaluronic acid ), glucosamine, chondroitin, intra-articular corticosteroids, rubefacients, or opioids.

In total, 235 systematic reviews were included. Owing to limited reporting of responder meta-analyses, a post hoc decision was made to evaluate individual RCTs with responder analysis within the included systematic reviews. New meta-analyses were performed where possible. A total of 155 RCTs were included. Interventions that led to more patients attaining meaningful pain relief compared with control included:

  • exercise (risk ratio [RR] of 2.36; 95% CI 1.79 to 3.12),
  • intra-articular corticosteroids (RR = 1.74; 95% CI 1.15 to 2.62),
  • SNRIs (RR = 1.53; 95% CI 1.25 to 1.87),
  • oral NSAIDs (RR = 1.44; 95% CI 1.36 to 1.52),
  • glucosamine (RR = 1.33; 95% CI 1.02 to 1.74),
  • topical NSAIDs (RR = 1.27; 95% CI 1.16 to 1.38),
  • chondroitin (RR = 1.26; 95% CI 1.13 to 1.41),
  • viscosupplementation (RR = 1.22; 95% CI 1.12 to 1.33),
  • opioids (RR = 1.16; 95% CI 1.02 to 1.32).

Pre-planned subgroup analysis demonstrated no effect with glucosamine, chondroitin, or viscosupplementation in studies that were only publicly funded. When trials longer than 4 weeks were analysed, the benefits of opioids were not statistically significant.

The authors concluded that interventions that provide meaningful relief for chronic osteoarthritis pain might include exercise, intra-articular corticosteroids, SNRIs, oral and topical NSAIDs, glucosamine, chondroitin, viscosupplementation, and opioids. However, funding of studies and length of treatment are important considerations in interpreting these data.

Exercise clearly is an effective intervention for chronic osteoarthritis pain. It has consistently been recommended by international guideline groups as the first-line treatment in osteoarthritis management. The type of exercise is likely not important.

Pharmacotherapies such as NSAIDs and duloxetine demonstrate smaller but statistically significant benefit that continues beyond 12 weeks. Opioids appear to have short-term benefits that attenuate after 4 weeks, and intra-articular steroids after 12 weeks. Limited data (based on 2 RCTs) suggest that acetaminophen is not helpful. These findings are consistent with recent Osteoarthritis Research Society International guideline recommendations that no longer recommend acetaminophen for osteoarthritis pain management and strongly recommend against the use of opioids.

Limited benefit was observed with other interventions including glucosamine, chondroitin, and viscosupplementation. When only publicly funded trials were examined for these interventions, the results were no longer statistically significant.

Adverse events were inconsistently reported. However, withdrawal due to adverse events was consistently reported and found to be greater in patients using opioids, SNRIs, topical NSAIDs, and viscosupplementation.

Few of the interventions assessed fall under the umbrella of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM):

  • some forms of exercise,
  • cannabinoids,
  • counselling,
  • chondroitin,
  • glucosamine.

It is unclear why the authors did not include SCAMs such as chiropractic, osteopathy, massage therapy, acupuncture, herbal medicines, neural therapy, etc. in their review. All of these SCAMs are frequently used for osteoarthritis pain. If they had included these treatments, how do you think they would have fared?

14 Responses to Management of chronic osteoarthritis pain: are SCAMs worth trying?

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