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Systemic analgesics (including paracetamol and opioids) 

Systemic analgesics (including paracetamol and opioids)
Systemic analgesics (including paracetamol and opioids)

Bernard Bannwarth

and Francis Berenbaum

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date: 23 June 2021

Apart from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), there are only two categories of systemic analgesics, namely paracetamol (acetaminophen) and opioids, that are currently available worldwide for clinical use. Paracetamol is poorly effective in relieving pain and improving function in patients with symptomatic osteoarthritis (OA). Furthermore, its safety profile is less favourable than classically thought. In fact, there is evidence paracetamol acts as a weak inhibitor of the cyclooxygenase enzymes. Given that paracetamol poses a lower risk of severe adverse events than NSAIDs while being better tolerated than opioids, it is usually considered as the first-line systemic analgesic for OA. Commonly prescribed opioids are primarily agonists of the mu receptors, thereby producing similar desirable (analgesia) and untoward effects. Meta-analyses of short-term clinical trials showed that, on average, the modest clinical benefits of opioids did not outweigh the side effects in patients with knee or hip OA. Accordingly, most current guidelines support the use of opioids for selected OA patients only (e.g. patients who have not had an adequate response to other treatment modalities and are not candidates for total joint arthroplasty). In view of the limited efficacy and/or potential harms of available analgesics, particular attention was paid to novel painkillers, especially nerve growth factor (NGF) antagonists. Although these agents provided clinically meaningful improvements in pain and physical function in patients with hip or knee OA, they lead to severe side effects, including rapidly destructive arthropathies and neuropathies. Thus, if approved for marketing, NGF antagonists would be reserved for selected and well-defined patients with OA.

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