Context: Participants in a randomized trial of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD) had a linear decline in pain over 16 TCM visits.
Objective: To investigate whether reductions in pain among participants receiving TCM can be explained by increased use of pain medications, or whether use of pain medications also declined in this group.
Design: One hundred sixty-eight participants with TMD were treated with TCM or enhanced self-care according to a stepped-care design. Those for whom self-care failed were sequentially randomized to further self-care or TCM. This report includes 111 participants during their first 16 TCM visits. The initial 8 visits occurred more than once a week; participants and practitioners determined the frequency of subsequent visits.
Outcome measures: Average pain (visual analog scale, range 0–10) and morphine and aspirin dose equivalents.
Results: The sample was 87% women and the average age was 44 ± 13 years. Average pain of narcotics users (n = 21) improved by 2.73 units over 16 visits (p < 0.001). Overall narcotics use trended downward until visit 11 (−3.27 doses/week, p = 0.156), and then trended upward until week 16 (+4.29 doses/week, p = 0.264). Among those using narcotics, use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) declined linearly over visits 1–16 (−1.94 doses/week, p = 0.002).
Among the top quartile of NSAID-only users (n = 22), average pain decreased linearly over 16 visits (−1.52 units, p = 0.036). Overall NSAID doses/week declined between visits 1 and 7 (−9.95 doses/week, p < 0.001) and then remained stable through 16 visits. NSAID use also declined among the third quartile (n = 23) and remained low and stable among the lower half (sorted by total intake) of NSAID users.
Conclusions: Among the heaviest NSAID users, we observed a short-term reduction in NSAID use that was sustained as TCM visits became less frequent. There was no indication that pain reduction during TCM treatment was influenced by drug use.