To evaluate the short-term symptomatic efficacy of rofecoxib and diclofenac versus placebo in acute episodes of shoulder pain.
Randomized controlled trial of 7 days.
Rheumatologists and/or general practitioners totaling 47.
Acute shoulder pain.
Rofecoxib 50 mg once daily, diclofenac 50 mg three times daily, and placebo.
Pain, functional impairment, patient's global assessment of his/her disease activity, and local steroid injection requirement for persistent pain. The primary variable was the Kaplan-Meier estimates of the percentage of patients at day 7 fulfilling the definition of success (improvement in pain intensity and a low pain level sustained to the end of the 7 days of the study; log-rank test).
There was no difference in the baseline characteristics between the three groups (rofecoxib n = 88, placebo n = 94, and diclofenac n = 89). At day 7, the Kaplan-Meier estimates of successful patients was higher in the treatment groups than in the placebo (54%, 56%, and 38% in the diclofenac, rofecoxib, and placebo groups respectively, p = 0.0070 and p = 0.0239 for placebo versus rofecoxib and diclofenac, respectively). During the 7 days of the study, there was a statistically significant difference between placebo and both active arms (rofecoxib and diclofenac) in all the evaluated outcome measures A local steroid injection had to be performed in 33 (35%) and 19 (22%) patients in the placebo and rofecoxib group respectively. Number needed to treat to avoid such rescue therapy was 7 patients (95% confidence interval 5–15).
This study highlights the methodological aspects of clinical trials, e.g., eligibility criteria and outcome measures, in acute painful conditions. The data also establish that diclofenac and rofecoxib are effective therapies for the management of acute painful shoulder and that they reduce the requirement for local steroid injection.
Background: Shoulder pain is a very common complaint that presents in primary care, and there are many different possible causes. Acute pain would normally be managed with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), supplemented with steroid injections (which are often reserved for the treatment of severe or persistent pain). One NSAID, diclofenac, is used frequently for this condition, but other NSAIDs might also be effective. A subgroup of NSAIDs called the Cox-2 selective inhibitors specifically inhibit one particular enzyme (cyclo-oxygenase, shortened to Cox-2) which is involved in inflammation and pain. These drugs are thought to be less likely to cause stomach irritation than other NSAIDs. Therefore the researchers in this study carried out a short-term, three-way clinical trial comparing diclofenac with one particular Cox-2 inhibitor, rofecoxib, and placebo in patients with acute shoulder pain. However, rofecoxib was withdrawn from the market in September 2004 because of evidence that use of the drug was associated with an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, and controversy remains regarding the risk of such events among users of other Cox-2 inhibitors.
What this trial shows: The main aim of this trial was to compare the level of pain relief over seven days of treatment with either diclofenac or rofecoxib, as compared to placebo. The primary outcome measure used in the trial was the proportion of patients achieving a 50% or greater decrease in pain levels over the course of the study, measured using a numerical rating scale. A total of 273 participants were recruited into the trial and at day 7 the proportion achieving a 30% decrease in pain was 38% in the placebo arm, 54% in the diclofenac arm, and 56% in the rofecoxib arm. The differences in this outcome measure between diclofenac and placebo and between rofecoxib and placebo were statistically significant; however, the researchers did not carry out a direct comparison between diclofenac and rofecoxib. The rates of adverse events were roughly comparable between all three arms of the trial, although the study was not originally planned to be large enough to detect differences in the rates of such events, so it is not possible to conclude whether there was any true difference.
Strengths and limitations: The randomization procedures used in the study minimize the possibility of bias in assigning patients to treatment arms. Bias in assessment of outcomes was also minimized by ensuring that steps were taken to prevent investigators and patients from knowing which drugs a particular patient received until the end of the trial. A key limitation of the study is the short follow-up, only seven days, and it is therefore unclear whether efficacy and safety of these drugs would continue for the much longer periods of time (weeks or even months) for which these patients might need pain relief. Finally, patients randomized to the placebo arm received no treatment for the seven days of the study other than acetaminophen or steroid injections (which would result in withdrawal from the trial). This design does not limit interpretation of the data but could be criticized because of concern over whether the patients receiving placebo received adequate pain relief.
Contribution to the evidence: This study provides some data on the efficacy of diclofenac and rofecoxib, as compared to placebo in treatment of this condition. Given that rofecoxib is now withdrawn, the efficacy of this drug is no longer relevant. However, the information from this trial should help in designing future studies of NSAIDs in shoulder pain, for example to define appropriate trial outcomes, sample size, and other aspects of study design.