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Cancer Health Center

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Antidepressants for Cancer Pain


Tricyclic antidepressants

Generic Name Brand Name
desipramine Norpramin
doxepin Silenor
imipramine Tofranil
nortriptyline Aventyl, Pamelor

Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)

Generic Name Brand Name
duloxetine Cymbalta
venlafaxine Effexor

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

Generic Name Brand Name
fluoxetine Prozac
paroxetine Paxil
sertraline Zoloft

How It Works

Antidepressant medicines increase levels of the chemicals produced in the brain to improve your mood. Lower doses relieve pain and may help you sleep.

Why It Is Used

In low doses, antidepressants may relieve chronic pain and pain related to the peripheral nervous system (neuropathic pain), such as cancer pain. They may also cause drowsiness, which may improve sleep and relieve fatigue.

In higher doses, antidepressants can help to relieve symptoms of depression.

How Well It Works

Some people find that low doses of antidepressants help relieve cancer pain. Researchers are still exploring whether and how well antidepressants affect cancer pain. These drugs can improve sleep. This, in turn, may improve your ability to manage your pain.

Side Effects

Different antidepressants have different side effects. If you have severe side effects from one drug, your doctor may give you a different one.

Most side effects decrease over time. They may include:

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

FDA advisory. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued an advisory on antidepressant medicines and the risk of suicide. Talk to your doctor about these possible side effects and the warning signs of suicide.

What To Think About

Do not suddenly stop taking antidepressants. The use of antidepressants should be tapered off slowly and only under the supervision of a doctor. Abruptly stopping antidepressant medicines can cause negative side effects or a relapse into another depression episode.

Studies have found that daily use of SSRIs may increase the risk of bone fracture in adults over age 50. Before taking an SSRI, talk to your doctor about this risk.

Amitriptyline is the most common antidepressant that is used to treat cancer pain. It may cause side effects, such as dry mouth, drowsiness, constipation, or difficulty urinating.

You may start to feel better within 1 to 3 weeks of taking antidepressant medicine. But it can take as many as 6 to 8 weeks to see more improvement. If you have questions or concerns about your medicines, or if you do not notice any improvement by 3 weeks, talk to your doctor.

People with cancer pain anddepression are often treated with one of the following:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), such as sertraline (Zoloft), fluoxetine (Prozac), or paroxetine (Paxil)
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI), such as venlafaxine (Effexor) or duloxetine (Cymbalta)
  • Higher dosage of tricyclic antidepressant than is used for cancer pain alone

SSRIs make bleeding more likely in the upper gastrointestinal tract (stomach and esophagus). Taking SSRIs with NSAIDs (such as Advil or Aleve) makes bleeding even more likely. Taking medicines that control acid in the stomach may help.

Women who take an SSRI during pregnancy have a slightly higher chance of having a baby with birth defects.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerMichael Seth Rabin, MD - Medical Oncology

Current as ofNovember 14, 2014

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: November 14, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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