Muscle relaxants and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) effectively improved symptoms of acute low back pain after 1 week of treatment, based on data from more than 3000 individuals.
Acute low back pain (LBP) remains a common cause of disability worldwide, with a high socioeconomic burden, write Alice Baroncini, MD, of RWTH University Hospital, Aachen, Germany, and colleagues.
In an analysis published in the Journal of Orthopaedic Research, a team of investigators from Germany examined which nonopioid drugs are best for treating LBP.
The researchers identified 18 studies totaling 3478 patients with acute low back pain of less than 12 weeks’ duration. They selected studies that only investigated the lumbar spine, and studies involving opioids were excluded. The mean age of the patients across all the studies was 42.5 years, and 54% were women. The mean duration of symptoms before treatment was 15.1 days.
Overall, muscle relaxants and NSAIDs demonstrated effectiveness in reducing pain and disability for acute LBP patients after about 1 week of use.
In addition, studies of a combination of NSAIDs and paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen) showed a greater improvement than NSAIDs alone, but paracetamol/acetaminophen alone had no significant impact on LBP.
Most patients with acute LBP experience spontaneous recovery and reduction of symptoms, thus the real impact of most medications is uncertain, the researchers write in their discussion. The lack of a placebo effect in the selected studies reinforces the hypothesis that nonopioid medications improve LBP symptoms, they say.
However, “While this work only focuses on the pharmacological management of acute LBP, it is fundamental to highlight that the use of drugs should always be a second-line strategy once other nonpharmacological, noninvasive therapies have proved to be insufficient,” the researchers write.
The study findings were limited by several factors including the inability to distinguish among different NSAID classes, the inability to conduct a subanalysis of the best drug or treatment protocol for a given drug class, and the short follow-up period for the included studies, the researchers note.
More research is needed to address the effects of different drugs on LBP recurrence, they add.
However, the results support the current opinion that NSAIDs can be effectively used for LBP, strengthened by the large number of studies and relatively low risk of bias, the researchers conclude.
Study Supports Opioid Alternatives
The current study addresses a common cause of morbidity among patients and highlights alternatives to opioid analgesics for its management, Suman Pal, MBBS, a specialist in hospital medicine at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, said in an interview.
Pal said he was not surprised by the results. “The findings of the study mirror prior studies,” he said. “However, the lack of benefit of paracetamol alone needs to be highlighted as important to clinical practice.”
A key message for clinicians is the role of NSAIDs in LBP, Pal told Medscape. “NSAIDs, either alone or in combination with paracetamol or myorelaxants, can be effective therapy for select patients with acute LBP.” However, “Further research is needed to better identify which patients would derive most benefit from this approach,” he said.
Other research needs include more evidence to better understand the appropriate duration of therapy, given the potential for adverse effects with chronic NSAID use, Pal said.
The study received no outside funding. The researchers and Pal have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
J Orthop Res. Published online February 22, 2023. Full text
Heidi Splete is a freelance medical journalist with 20 years of experience.
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