Antidepressants for pain management in adults with chronic pain: a network meta-analysis

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2023 May 10;5(5):CD014682. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD014682.pub2.


Background: Chronic pain is common in adults, and often has a detrimental impact upon physical ability, well-being, and quality of life. Previous reviews have shown that certain antidepressants may be effective in reducing pain with some benefit in improving patients' global impression of change for certain chronic pain conditions. However, there has not been a network meta-analysis (NMA) examining all antidepressants across all chronic pain conditions.

Objectives: To assess the comparative efficacy and safety of antidepressants for adults with chronic pain (except headache).

Search methods: We searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, LILACS, AMED and PsycINFO databases, and clinical trials registries, for randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of antidepressants for chronic pain conditions in January 2022.

Selection criteria: We included RCTs that examined antidepressants for chronic pain against any comparator. If the comparator was placebo, another medication, another antidepressant, or the same antidepressant at different doses, then we required the study to be double-blind. We included RCTs with active comparators that were unable to be double-blinded (e.g. psychotherapy) but rated them as high risk of bias. We excluded RCTs where the follow-up was less than two weeks and those with fewer than 10 participants in each arm. DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two review authors separately screened, data extracted, and judged risk of bias. We synthesised the data using Bayesian NMA and pairwise meta-analyses for each outcome and ranked the antidepressants in terms of their effectiveness using the surface under the cumulative ranking curve (SUCRA). We primarily used Confidence in Meta-Analysis (CINeMA) and Risk of Bias due to Missing Evidence in Network meta-analysis (ROB-MEN) to assess the certainty of the evidence. Where it was not possible to use CINeMA and ROB-MEN due to the complexity of the networks, we used GRADE to assess the certainty of the evidence. Our primary outcomes were substantial (50%) pain relief, pain intensity, mood, and adverse events. Our secondary outcomes were moderate pain relief (30%), physical function, sleep, quality of life, Patient Global Impression of Change (PGIC), serious adverse events, and withdrawal.

Main results: This review and NMA included 176 studies with a total of 28,664 participants. The majority of studies were placebo-controlled (83), and parallel-armed (141). The most common pain conditions examined were fibromyalgia (59 studies); neuropathic pain (49 studies) and musculoskeletal pain (40 studies). The average length of RCTs was 10 weeks. Seven studies provided no useable data and were omitted from the NMA. The majority of studies measured short-term outcomes only and excluded people with low mood and other mental health conditions. Across efficacy outcomes, duloxetine was consistently the highest-ranked antidepressant with moderate- to high-certainty evidence. In duloxetine studies, standard dose was equally efficacious as high dose for the majority of outcomes. Milnacipran was often ranked as the next most efficacious antidepressant, although the certainty of evidence was lower than that of duloxetine. There was insufficient evidence to draw robust conclusions for the efficacy and safety of any other antidepressant for chronic pain. Primary efficacy outcomes Duloxetine standard dose (60 mg) showed a small to moderate effect for substantial pain relief (odds ratio (OR) 1.91, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.69 to 2.17; 16 studies, 4490 participants; moderate-certainty evidence) and continuous pain intensity (standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.31, 95% CI -0.39 to -0.24; 18 studies, 4959 participants; moderate-certainty evidence). For pain intensity, milnacipran standard dose (100 mg) also showed a small effect (SMD -0.22, 95% CI -0.39 to 0.06; 4 studies, 1866 participants; moderate-certainty evidence). Mirtazapine (30 mg) had a moderate effect on mood (SMD -0.5, 95% CI -0.78 to -0.22; 1 study, 406 participants; low-certainty evidence), while duloxetine showed a small effect (SMD -0.16, 95% CI -0.22 to -0.1; 26 studies, 7952 participants; moderate-certainty evidence); however it is important to note that most studies excluded participants with mental health conditions, and so average anxiety and depression scores tended to be in the 'normal' or 'subclinical' ranges at baseline already. Secondary efficacy outcomes Across all secondary efficacy outcomes (moderate pain relief, physical function, sleep, quality of life, and PGIC), duloxetine and milnacipran were the highest-ranked antidepressants with moderate-certainty evidence, although effects were small. For both duloxetine and milnacipran, standard doses were as efficacious as high doses. Safety There was very low-certainty evidence for all safety outcomes (adverse events, serious adverse events, and withdrawal) across all antidepressants. We cannot draw any reliable conclusions from the NMAs for these outcomes.

Authors' conclusions: Our review and NMAs show that despite studies investigating 25 different antidepressants, the only antidepressant we are certain about for the treatment of chronic pain is duloxetine. Duloxetine was moderately efficacious across all outcomes at standard dose. There is also promising evidence for milnacipran, although further high-quality research is needed to be confident in these conclusions. Evidence for all other antidepressants was low certainty. As RCTs excluded people with low mood, we were unable to establish the effects of antidepressants for people with chronic pain and depression. There is currently no reliable evidence for the long-term efficacy of any antidepressant, and no reliable evidence for the safety of antidepressants for chronic pain at any time point.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use
  • Chronic Pain* / drug therapy
  • Duloxetine Hydrochloride
  • Humans
  • Milnacipran
  • Network Meta-Analysis
  • Pain Management
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Duloxetine Hydrochloride
  • Milnacipran