Evidence-Based Reviews

Antidepressants for chronic pain

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The differences in analgesic efficacy among specific TCAs may be understood in a similar fashion. Specifically, tertiary TCAs (imipramine and amitriptyline) inhibit both 5-HT and NE reuptake.6,90 Secondary amines (desipramine and nortriptyline) predominantly impact NE reuptake, possibly accounting for the lesser pain-mitigating benefit achieved with these agents, such as for treating neuro­pathic pain. Further, in vivo imipramine and amitriptyline are rapidly metabolized to secondary amines that are potent and selective NE reuptake inhibitors. In this way, the secondary amines may substantially lose the ability to modulate pain transmission because of the loss of concurrent 5-HT influences.90

Clinical pearls

The following practical points can help guide clinicians regarding the usefulness of antidepressants for pain management:

  • Antidepressants can alleviate symptoms of depression and pain. The pain-mitigating effects of antidepressants are possible even among chronic pain patients who are not depressed. Antidepressants may confer benefits for chronic pain patients with depression and other comorbid conditions, such as somatic symptom and related disorders.
  • Antidepressants are useful for select chronic pain states. Although the noradrenergic and serotonergic antidepressants (SNRIs and, to some extent, amitriptyline) appear to have efficacy for neuropathic pain and FM, the benefits of SSRIs appear to be less robust. On the other hand, SSRIs and TCAs may have potential benefit for patients with IBS. However, the results of meta-analyses are limited in the ability to provide information about which patients will best respond to which specific antidepressant or how well. Future research directed at identifying characteristics that can predict which patients are likely to benefit from one antidepressant vs another would help inform how best to tailor treatment to individual needs.
  • The pain-mitigating effects of antidepressants often emerge early in the course of treatment (often before mood-elevating effects are observed). For example, in the case of amitriptyline, pain relief may be possible for some patients at doses generally lower than those required for mood-elevating effects. To date, there is limited information in the literature to determine what constitutes a sufficient duration of treatment, or when treatment should be modified.
  • Failure to reduce pain should raise questions about whether the dose should be increased, an alternative agent should be tried, or combinations with other analgesic agents should be considered. Failure to achieve pain-mitigating effects with one antidepressant does not mean failure with others. Hence, failure to achieve desired effects with one agent might warrant an empirical trial with another agent. Presently, too few double-blind RCTs have been conducted to assess the pain-mitigating effects of other antidepressants (eg, bupropion and newer SNRIs such as desvenlafaxine and levomilnacipran). Meta-analysis of the analgesic effectiveness of these agents or comparisons to the efficacy of other antidepressant classes is, therefore, impossible at this time.

Because many chronic pain states are complex, patients will seldom experience clinically relevant benefit from any one intervention.53 The bigger implication for clinical research is to determine whether there is a sequence or combination of medication use that will provide overall better clinical effectiveness.53 Only limited data are available exploring the utility of combining pharmacologic approaches to address pain.91 For example, preliminary evidence suggests that combinations of complementary strategies, such as duloxetine combined with pregabalin, may result in significantly greater numbers of FM patients achieving ≥30% pain reduction compared with monotherapy with either agent alone or placebo.92

  • Antidepressant selection may need to be based on medication-related adverse effect profiles and the potential for drug interactions. These factors are useful to consider in delineating multimodal treatment regimens for chronic pain in light of patients’ comorbidities and co-medication regimen. For example, the adverse effects of TCAs (anticholinergic and alpha-adrenergic influences) limit their utility for treating pain. Some of these effects can be more problematic in select populations, such as older adults or those with orthostatic difficulties, among others. TCAs are contraindicated in patients with closed-angle glaucoma, recent myocardial infarction, cardiac arrhythmias, poorly controlled seizures, or severe benign prostatic hypertrophy. Although the pain-mitigating effects of SNRIs have not been demonstrated to significantly exceed those of TCAs,68,93,94 SNRIs would offer an advantage of greater tolerability of adverse effects and relative safety in patients with comorbid medical conditions that would otherwise preclude TCA use. The adverse effects and common drug interactions associated with antidepressants are summarized in Table 295.
Antidepressants used to manage pain: Adverse effects and potential drug interactions


Chronic, nonmalignant pain conditions afflict many patients and significantly impair their ability to function. Because of heightened concerns related to the appropriateness of, and restricting inordinate access to, long-term opioid analgesics, clinicians need to explore the usefulness of co-analgesic agents, such as antidepressants. Significant comorbidities exist between psychiatric disorders and chronic pain, and psychiatrists are uniquely positioned to diagnose and treat psychiatric comorbidities, as well as pain, among their patients, especially since they understand the kinetics and dynamics of antidepressants.

Bottom Line

Antidepressants can alleviate symptoms of depression and pain. Noradrenergic and serotonergic antidepressants appear to have efficacy for pain associated with neuropathy and fibromyalgia, while selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and tricyclic antidepressants may have benefit for patients with irritable bowel syndrome. However, evidence regarding which patients will best respond to which specific antidepressant is limited.

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