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Antidepressants Do Not Improve Back Pain

backBack pain will strike 8 out of 10 adults during a course of a lifetime. Unfortunately for some, the disorder may become chronic with depression often an accompanying symptom.

A new report discovers, however, that the prescription of antidepressants to patients with low back pain is not helpful for relieving the discomfort.

The review was spearheaded by the finding that up to 23 percent of U.S. physicians report prescribing antidepressants to patients with low back pain.

“The prescription of antidepressants as a treatment for back pain remains controversial,” Donna Urquhart, Ph.D., research fellow at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and lead review author.

The review appears in the latest issue of The Cochrane Library, a publication of The Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates medical research.

Physicians commonly prescribe antidepressants for patients with low back pain to provide pain relief, aid in sleep and treat coexisting depression.

Roger Chou, M.D., is the director of the American Pain Society’s Clinical Practice Guideline Program, which recently published new practice guidelines for the management of low back pain in conjunction with the American College of Physicians.

“Antidepressants are considered second- or third-line agents in the treatment of low back pain,” Chou said. “It’s very common to be depressed with chronic pain, so that may be when clinicians are inclined to try a medication for both the chronic pain and the depression.”

For the review, Urquhart and colleagues analyzed 10 published studies that compared antidepressants to placebos in patients with low back pain. The studies included patients with problems such as ruptured discs, slipped vertebrae and pain due to pinched nerves. Four studies included both depressed and non-depressed patients. In two studies, it was not clear whether patients were depressed. One study targeted patients with low back pain and concurrent depression.

In most studies, patients could continue taking other pain medications such as aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Five studies reported no differences in pain between patients receiving antidepressants and those receiving a placebo; however, two studies reported less pain in patients receiving antidepressants. Seven studies reported no differences in depression in patients receiving antidepressants who also had low back pain compared to patients receiving placebo.

“The review found no convincing evidence that antidepressants relieve back pain or depression more effectively than placebo,” Urquhart said. Nor did researchers find any difference in patients’ ability to function, whether receiving antidepressants or placebo.

The majority of the studies looked at tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline, nortriptyline and clomipramine. Two studies evaluated the effectiveness of paroxetine (Paxil is one brand), a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).

In addition, two studies evaluated the ‘atypical’ antidepressants, bupropion (Wellbutrin) and trazodone.

After analyzing the findings of these studies, the researchers concluded, “Both tricyclics and SSRIs were no more effective than placebo in reducing pain.”

Chou, of the American Pain Society, said that three previously conducted systematic reviews have found that some antidepressants are modestly effective in the treatment of low back pain.

“It’s striking that the Cochrane review came to different conclusions than the older reviews.” This might have occurred because the review measured improvement in symptoms using different criteria than the previous reviews, he added.

“It’s been pretty well shown that tricyclic antidepressants and antidepressants that modify norepinephrine uptake, such as duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor), do have an effect on reducing chronic pain,” he said.

Urquhart cautioned that patients with significant depression should not avoid antidepressants based on the findings of this review, because there is evidence that antidepressants can help patients with clinical depression.

“However, existing studies do not provide adequate evidence for or against the use of antidepressants in low back pain and further research is needed,” she said. “In the meantime, antidepressants should be regarded as an unproven treatment for nonspecific low back pain.”

Chou said that reviews like this are important for patients so they can learn about what options are available and which ones are effective. “There are so many treatments and it’s very confusing for patients and clinicians alike.”

Source: Health Behavior News Service

Antidepressants Do Not Improve Back Pain

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Antidepressants Do Not Improve Back Pain. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 23, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.