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Antidepressant Lessens Chemo-Related Pain

Cymbalta shows positive effect on neuropathy in clinical trial

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Amy Norton

HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, April 2 (HealthDay News) -- The antidepressant drug Cymbalta can help relieve chronic pain caused by certain cancer drugs, a new clinical trial reports.

The study, appearing in the April 3 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, tested Cymbalta on patients with chronic cases of chemotherapy-related peripheral neuropathy -- pain, tingling and numbness in the limbs that arises when certain chemo drugs damage the nerves.

Of 115 patients who took the antidepressant for five weeks, 59 percent got some degree of pain relief, compared with 38 percent of patients given a drug-free placebo.

Researchers said the findings support what some doctors have seen in everyday practice, since Cymbalta is already used to treat the chemo side effect.

That use has been based on the fact that Cymbalta helps with other types of pain, said Dr. Michael Stubblefield, who was not involved in the study but treats patients with chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

In the United States, the drug -- known chemically as duloxetine -- is approved to treat diabetes-related peripheral neuropathy, as well as fibromyalgia and chronic pain from arthritis.

Until now, cancer specialists have had to "steal" from evidence that Cymbalta helps with those forms of nerve pain, Stubblefield said.

"This is the first study of its kind to show that this works against chemotherapy-related neuropathic pain," he said.

It is estimated that 20 percent to 40 percent of patients treated with certain cancer drugs -- including so-called taxanes and platinums -- will develop peripheral neuropathy. For most, the problem improves once their chemo is over, said Ellen Lavoie Smith, the lead researcher on the study. But for some, she added, the nerve pain becomes chronic -- lasting for months or years after their chemo ends.

"This study focused on those patients," said Smith, an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, in Ann Arbor.

"The findings show that there is a medication that may be effective for reducing their pain from neuropathy," Smith said. But, she added, it didn't help everyone; the majority of Cymbalta patients improved, while others saw no change -- and 10 percent got worse.

The study included 231 patients with nerve pain that had persisted for at least three months since their chemo regimen ended. Half were randomly assigned to take Cymbalta for five weeks, while the other half took placebo pills. The two groups then switched treatments. None of the patients knew when they were taking the real drug and when they were on the placebo.

Of the patients given Cymbalta first, the average pain score fell by a point on a scale of 0 to 10. That's considered to be a "clinically important" change, Smith said, meaning it's an improvement patients notice in their daily lives.

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