A New Painkiller Aims at Arthritic Joints

People with osteoarthritis have a new pain-relief option that doesn't involve popping a pill.

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People with osteoarthritis have a new pain-relief option that doesn't involve popping a pill. Voltaren Gel, now approved by the Food and Drug Administration, can be applied directly to the skin on an arthritic knee or hand. According to manufacturer Novartis, it will be available by prescription in early 2008.

The gel is the first U.S.-approved topical nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug for osteoarthritis pain. Rare side effects linked to oral NSAIDs—including heart attack, stroke, and gastrointestinal bleeding—may be less likely to occur with Voltaren, experts say, because it is applied to and absorbed by only the affected joint, not the whole body.

"The advantage to this preparation [compared with oral painkillers] is that it seems like it's providing comparable relief but with little systemic absorption," says Raymond Flores, a rheumatologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who is not affiliated with Novartis. In Novartis's trials, Voltaren relieved hand pain by 46 percent after six weeks of use, compared with 36 percent in a control group that received an inactive gel, according to Roy Altman, a Novartis consultant and University of California-Los Angeles rheumatologist. Other patients saw their knee pain drop by half after 12 weeks of using the gel, while a comparison group had a 39 percent reduction in pain. Voltaren shouldn't be used by patients also taking oral NSAIDs.