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New and Emerging Treatment Options for Neuropathic Pain
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New and Emerging Treatment Options for Neuropathic Pain

Barry Gidal, PharmD, RPh; and Richard Billington, RPh

A large number of neuroanatomical, neurophysiologic, and neurochemical mechanisms are thought to contribute to the development and maintenance of neuropathic pain (NP). As a result, a corresponding wide range of treatments have been employed to treat patients with NP, including antiepileptic drugs, opioid analgesics, tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor antagonists, cholecystokinin receptor antagonists, adenosine, lipoic acid, cannabinoids, isosorbide dinitrate, dronabinol, capsaicin, protein kinase C inhibitors, aldose reductase inhibitors, and VR-1 receptor modulators. Many of these compounds are limited by marginal efficacy and clinically significant adverse events; few have been evaluated in well-controlled, large-scale clinical trials. At present, the only agents approved for the treatment of painful diabetic peripheral neuropathy and postherpetic neuralgia are lidocaine patches 5%, duloxetine, gabapentin, and pregabalin. Of these, only pregabalin is indicated for both conditions.

(Am J Manag Care. 2006;12:S269-S278)

Neuropathic pain (NP) is a complex condition that has been the subject of considerable basic and clinical research. As a result of this effort, considerable progress has been made in our understanding of the pathophysiology underlying NP. Mechanisms now thought to be involved in the development and maintenance of NP include alterations in peripheral nerves, dorsal root ganglia, and the spinal cord. These changes include upregulation and/or down-regulation of neuropeptides and neurotransmitters and changes that occur at supraspinal sites and result in facilitation of pain transmission. 1 Given the wide range of neuroanatomical, neurophysiologic, and neurochemical changes thought to be involved in NP, it should not be surprising that a large number of compounds with peripheral and/or central neuronal or non-neuronal targets have been used in the treatment of this condition, including 2 of the most common causes of NP: diabetic peripheral neuropathy (DPN) and postherpetic neuralgia (PHN).


Many different drugs have been employed for the treatment of NP (Table). These include a wide range of antiepileptic drugs (AEDs), including carbamazepine, phenytoin, oxcarbazepine, lamotrigine, valproic acid, gabapentin, topiramate, and pregabalin. AEDs may have multiple actions that provide clinical benefits in the treatment of patients with NP. Agents including carbamazepine, oxcarbazepine, gabapentin, pregabalin, lamotrigine, phenobarbital, phenytoin, topiramate, and valproate reduce high-frequency repetitive firing in neurons via blockade of voltage-dependent sodium and calcium channels. Other agents (eg, phenobarbital, tiagabine, topiramate, vigabatrin, valproate) may either enhance inhibitory neurotransmission or directly interfere with excitatory transmission.2

Older AEDs may be limited by pharmacokinetic factors and high risk for adverse events (AEs); and newer agents have been the focus of recent studies.3-5 However, there is, at present, insufficient information from controlled clinical trials to support use of most of these agents in patients with NP.5

Opioids have also been used to treat patients with NP, and their use is supported by the results of recent clinical trials that have demonstrated the efficacy of oxycodone, morphine, and levorphanol in patients with PHN, DPN, and other neuropathic pain conditions.6 Aside from butorphanol and nalbuphine, all widely used opioids are selective for ยต-opioid receptors. Butorphanol and nalbuphine are selective for k-opioid receptors, are limited by partial agonist activity, have a high risk for central side effects (eg, dysphoria, sedation, and hallucinations), and are not generally used in the treatment of NP.7

Most opioid analgesics are limited by high rates of AEs, including constipation, sedation, and nausea. These drugs should also be used with extreme caution in patients with a history of addictive behavior.6 Tramadol, an agent that combines opioid receptor antagonist activity with norepinephrine (NE) reuptake inhibition, may have value for the treatment of NP.3 Results from one smallscale clinical trial have demonstrated the effectiveness of tramadol in patients with polyneuropathy.8-10

Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) have been used extensively in the treatment of NP. These agents are thought to inhibit pain transmission in the spinal cord by increasing levels of NE and serotonin (5-HT) as a result of their ability to prevent the reuptake of these amines after they are released from synaptic terminals. TCAs might also affect histaminergic, cholinergic, and glutamatergic neurotransmission, and they appear to block sodium channels.3,11 TCAs are associated with a wide range of AEs, some potentially serious, which include exacerbation of glaucoma, urinary retention, constipation, dry mouth, blurred vision, cognitive changes, tachycardia, weight gain, orthostatic hypotension, and falls.11

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are generally believed to be less effective than TCAs for the treatment of NP in some patients, although this is somewhat controversial.6 Serotonin-NE reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) have also been used to treat NP; duloxetine and venlafaxine have been shown to be effective in treating and preventing postmastectomy pain syndrome, DPN, and painful polyneuropathy.12-14 The use of duloxetine is discussed later in this article.

A variety of other therapies are being evaluated in the treatment of NP. These include N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor antagonists (ketamine, lidocaine, glycine, dextromethorphan, amantadine), cholecystokinin receptor antagonists, adenosine, lipoic acid, cannabinoids, isosorbide dinitrate, dronabinol, capsaicin, protein kinase C inhibitors, aldose reductase inhibitors, and VR-1 receptor modulators (Table).3,15,16

Antiviral agents, including aciclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir, have also been assessed in patients with herpes zoster for their role in the prevention of PHN or lessening its severity. Results of clinical trials indicate that all 3 agents mentioned decrease both zoster pain and the risk of developing PHN.17 A review of the results for famciclovir indicated that older age, rash severity, and acute pain severity are risk factors for prolonged PHN. In addition, these results demonstrated that treatment of patients with acute herpes zoster with famciclovir significantly reduced both the duration and prevalence of PHN.18 It may be useful to combine antiviral therapy with treatments directed at PHN pain in patients with herpes zoster infections.

New therapies with novel mechanisms of action are also being developed for the management of DPN. Elevated homocysteine has been shown to be an independent risk factor for the development of DPN,19 and the combination of l-methylfolate, pyridoxal-5'-phosphate, and methylcobalamin has been shown to be effective in lowering homocysteine levels and decreasing the symptoms of diabetic neuropathy.20

At present, none of these treatments has demonstrated sufficient efficacy in controlled clinical trials to warrant approval for the treatment of NP by the US Food and Drug Administration. In fact, the only agents currently indicated for the treatment of painful DPN are duloxetine and pregabalin, and only lidocaine patches 5%, gabapentin, and pregabalin are approved for the treatment of patients with PHN. Carbamazepine is approved for the treatment of trigeminal neuralgia. The rest of this article reviews the pharmacodynamics (mechanism of action) and pharmacokinetics, clinical efficacy and safety, and dosing regimens for these agents.

Lidocaine Patches 5%

Lidocaine patches 5% are indicated for the relief of pain associated with PHN.17 The mechanism of action of lidocaine in the treatment of NP is stabilization of membranes by inhibiting ionic fluxes necessary for the conduction of action potentials.21 The amount of lidocaine systemically absorbed from lidocaine patches 5% is directly related to both the duration of application and to the surface area over which they are applied. When lidocaine patches 5% are used according to the recommended dosing instructions, only 3% of the applied dose is expected to be absorbed. At least 95% of lidocaine remains in the patch. The peak plasma concentration of lidocaine in subjects treated with these patches in pharmacokinetic studies is approximately 10% of the lidocaine level associated with cardiac activity and 3% of that associated with toxicity.21,22

The effectiveness of lidocaine patches 5% in the treatment of patients with PHN has been demonstrated in 2 small-scale, placebo-controlled studies and 1 larger-scale, open trial. In all 3 trials, lidocaine patches 5% provided significant pain relief relative to baseline and/or placebo (Figure 1).23-25 Application site reactions are the AEs most commonly associated with lidocaine patches 5%. They are generally mild to moderate in severity and do not often result in treatment discontinuation.26

Lidocaine patches 5% are applied to intact skin to cover the most painful area. Up to 3 patches may be applied. Patches should be applied only once for up to 12 hours during a 24-hour period.21


Duloxetine, a balanced SNRI, is indicated for the management of NP associated with DPN.27 Although the mechanism of action underlying pain relief with duloxetine is not completely understood, it is thought to be related to its ability to increase NE and 5-HT activity in the central nervous system. As noted above, these actions are also believed to underlie the ability of TCAs to relieve NP.28

Absorption of duloxetine is relatively slow, with peak plasma concentrations (Cmax) achieved about 6 hours after dosing. Administration of duloxetine with food slows absorption, and delivery in the evening versus the morning slows absorption and increases clearance by about 33%. Duloxetine is highly protein bound (>90%). After absorption, duloxetine is rapidly metabolized by cytochrome P450 2D6 and 1A2. It has been suggested that the metabolism of duloxetine may result in as many as 25 metabolites, most of which are glucuronide conjugates. Several primary metabolites of duloxetine are active at the 5-HT and/or NE transporters. The elimination half-life of duloxetine is approximately 12 hours.28,29

Approval of duloxetine for the treatment of NP secondary to DPN is based on results from 2 large-scale, randomized, doubleblind, placebo-controlled, 12-week trials in patients with DPN and pain. These 2 trials enrolled a total of 791 patients with type 1 or 2 diabetes with a diagnosis of painful distal symmetrical sensorimotor polyneuropathy for =6 months. The patients had a baseline pain score of =4 on an 11-point scale ranging from 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst possible pain). Both studies compared duloxetine 60 mg once daily or 60 mg twice daily with placebo. Treatment with both of these duloxetine doses significantly improved end point mean pain scores from baseline and increased the proportion of patients with =50% reductions in pain scores from baseline. Some patients experienced a decrease in pain as early as week 1, which persisted throughout the study (Figure 2).27,30,31

Duloxetine is generally well-tolerated. The AEs observed most often in clinical trials of patients with DPN involved the gastrointestinal system and the nervous system. These included nausea, constipation, decreased appetite, somnolence, headache, dizziness, insomnia, fatigue, and dry mouth.27 Discontinuations due to AEs occurred in about 4% of patients treated with 60 mg/day of duloxetine and 12% to 19% of those who received 120 mg/day of duloxetine.30,31

Copyright AJMC 2006-2018 Clinical Care Targeted Communications Group, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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