Antidepressant drugs have been widely used for many years to treat neuropathic pain, despite the rationale for their use was still unclear. We review recent insights into their mechanism of action, focusing on central and peripheral analgesic actions. Beside the traditional monoaminergic hypothesis, other pharmacological actions have been studied: antidepressants interfere with the opioid system, interact with the NMDA receptors, and inhibit ion channel activity. Firm evidence from randomised controlled trials demonstrated that TCAs are the most effective drugs for treatment of different neuropathic pain conditions. They exhibit the lowest number needed to treat compare with all other drugs investigated. SSRIs failed to provide an adequate analgesia, due to their high selectivity. SSRIs are clearly less effective than TCAs (NNT: 6.7 vs 2.4) supporting the hypothesis that a balanced inhibition of noradrenaline and serotonin reuptake is more effective in relieving pain. On the basis of initial results Venlafaxine seems to be the most promising of the newer antidepressants as analgesic. Newer antidepressants show a better side effects profile, but further investigation are warranted to clarify their potential role in management of pain. Neuropathic pain remains a challenging condition to treat, as all currently available drugs fail to achieve adequate pain relief in a significant proportion of patients. TCAs should be currently considered the first choice in treatment of neuropathic pain and the gold standard against which to compare other potential new treatments.
Keywords: neuropathic pain, antidepressants, newer antidepressants, antinociception, analgesia, mechanism of action, venlafaxine, mirtazapine
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