Can Antidepressants Ease Chemotherapy Pain?

Trial shows good results with antidepressant for pain

doctor checking patient's foot

There may now be a way to ease the awful tingling nerve pain commonly caused by some forms of chemotherapy.

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New research shows that the antidepressant drug duloxetine (brand name Cymbalta) reduced the nerve pain that can result from neurotoxic chemotherapy.

First time a reliable pain treatment found

Oncologist and pain expert Harold Goforth, MD, wasn’t part of the University of Michigan study, but says that up to this point there haven’t been good treatment options for this type of pain, called peripheral neuropathy.

“This is a very interesting study that does show some significant improvements in patients who take this medication,” Dr. Goforth says.

Results of study encouraging

According to the study, about 20 to 40 percent of people who receive neurotoxic chemotherapy will suffer from ongoing nerve pain. This pain is usually tingling sensations of pin pricks or pain in the hands and feet.

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The University of Michigan researchers looked at 231 patients with nerve pain over the course of five weeks.

Results showed that the duloxetine helped reduce nerve pain from chemo compared to placebo. The researchers found that 59 percent of those who took duloxetine reported reduced pain, while only 39 percent of those taking placebo did.

Potential for the pain treatment

Though this was just a clinical trial, the possibilities are exciting once researchers can target who will respond to the duloxetine.

Treating peripheral neuropathy is critical because it can lead to doctors being forced to limit the patient’s chemotherapy if the pain becomes too severe. So not only will effective pain treatment increase the patient’s quality of life, it avoids having to decrease needed chemo medication.

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“It gives up hope that we have a better understanding of this condition, and that we can better tailor treatment in the future,” says Dr. Goforth. “If we can do that, we can restore function in people in addition to curing their cancer.”

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