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Abstract

Background

Ibuprofen and paracetamol have long been used as analgesics in a range of acute, intermittent and chronic pain conditions. Paracetamol is often the first line analgesic recommended, without consensus about which is the better analgesic.

Methods

An overview review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses directly compares ibuprofen and paracetamol at standard doses in particular painful conditions, or uses indirect comparisons against placebo. Electronic searches for systematic reviews were sought published since 1995 using outcomes approximating to ≥50% pain intensity reduction. Painful conditions were acute post-operative pain, dysmenorrhoea, tension-type headache (TTH), migraine, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, back pain, cancer and paediatric pain. There was no systematic assessment of harm.

Results

Sixteen systematic reviews and four individual patient data meta-analyses were included. Ibuprofen was consistently superior to paracetamol at conventional doses in a range of painful conditions. Two direct comparisons favoured ibuprofen (acute pain, osteoarthritis). Three of four indirect comparisons favoured ibuprofen (acute pain, migraine, osteoarthritis); one showed no difference (TTH), although there were methodological problems. In five pain conditions (dysmenorrhoea, paediatric pain, cancer pain, back pain and rheumatoid arthritis), there were limited data on paracetamol and ibuprofen.

Conclusions

At standard doses in different painful conditions, ibuprofen was usually superior producing more patients with the degree of pain relief that patients feel worthwhile. Neither of the drugs will be effective for everyone, and both are needed. This overview questions the practice of routinely using paracetamol as a first line analgesic because there is no good evidence for efficacy of paracetamol in many pain conditions.