Pain is a common symptom with cancer, and 30% to 50% of all people with cancer will experience moderate to severe pain that can have a major negative impact on their quality of life. Non-opioid drugs are commonly used to treat mild to moderate cancer pain, and are recommended for this purpose in the WHO cancer pain treatment ladder, either alone or in combination with opioids.A previous Cochrane review that examined the evidence for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or paracetamol, alone or combined with opioids, for cancer pain was withdrawn in 2015 because it was out of date; the date of the last search was 2005. This review, and another on NSAIDs, updates the evidence.
To assess the efficacy of oral paracetamol (acetaminophen) for cancer pain in adults and children, and the adverse events reported during its use in clinical trials.
We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, and Embase from inception to March 2017, together with reference lists of retrieved papers and reviews, and two online study registries.
We included randomised, double-blind, studies of five days' duration or longer, comparing paracetamol alone with placebo, or paracetamol in combination with an opioid compared with the same dose of the opioid alone, for cancer pain of any intensity. Single-blind and open studies were also eligible for inclusion. The minimum study size was 25 participants per treatment arm at the initial randomisation.
Two review authors independently searched for studies, extracted efficacy and adverse event data, and examined issues of study quality and potential bias. We did not carry out any pooled analyses. We assessed the quality of the evidence using GRADE and created a 'Summary of findings' table.
Three studies in adults satisfied the inclusion criteria, lasting up to one week; 122 participants were randomised initially, and 95 completed treatment. We found no studies in children. One study was parallel-group, and two had a cross-over design. All used paracetamol as an add-on to established treatment with strong opioids (median daily morphine equivalent doses of 60 mg, 70 mg, and 225 mg, with some participants taking several hundred mg of oral morphine equivalents daily). Other non-paracetamol medication included non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), tricyclic antidepressants, or neuroleptics. All studies were at high risk of bias for incomplete outcome data and small size; none was unequivocally at low risk of bias.None of the studies reported any of our primary outcomes: participants with pain reduction of at least 50%, and at least 30%, from baseline; participants with pain no worse than mild at the end of the treatment period; participants with Patient Global Impression of Change (PGIC) of much improved or very much improved (or equivalent wording). What pain reports there were indicated no difference between paracetamol and placebo when added to another treatment. There was no convincing evidence of paracetamol being different from placebo with regards to quality of life, use of rescue medication, or participant satisfaction or preference. Measures of harm (serious adverse events, other adverse events, and withdrawal due to lack of efficacy) were inconsistently reported and provided no clear evidence of difference.Our GRADE assessment of evidence quality was very low for all outcomes, because studies were at high risk of bias from several sources.
There is no high-quality evidence to support or refute the use of paracetamol alone or in combination with opioids for the first two steps of the three-step WHO cancer pain ladder. It is not clear whether any additional analgesic benefit of paracetamol could be detected in the available studies, in view of the doses of opioids used.