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Eur J Pain. 2002;6 Suppl A:61-8.

Anticonvulsants in neuropathic pain: rationale and clinical evidence.

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Department of Neurology and Danish Pain Research Center, Aarhus University Hospital, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark.


Neuropathic pain, whether of peripheral or central origin, is characterized by a neuronal hyperexcitability in damaged areas of the nervous system. In peripheral neuropathic pain, damaged nerve endings exhibit abnormal spontaneous and increased evoked activity, partly due to an increased and novel expression of sodium channels. In central pain, although not explored in detail, the spontaneous pain and evoked allodynia are also best explained by a neuronal hyperexcitability. The peripheral hyperexcitability is due to a series of molecular changes at the level of the peripheral nociceptor, in dorsal root ganglia, in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord, and in the brain. These changes include abnormal expression of sodium channels, increased activity at glutamate receptor sites, changes in gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA-ergic) inhibition, and an alteration of calcium influx into cells. The neuronal hyperexcitability and corresponding molecular changes in neuropathic pain have many features in common with the cellular changes in certain forms of epilepsy. This has led to the use of anticonvulsant drugs for the treatment of neuropathic pain. Carbamazepine and phenytoin were the first anticonvulsants to be used in controlled clinical trials. Studies have shown these agents to relieve painful diabetic neuropathy and paroxysmal attacks in trigeminal neuralgia. Subsequent studies have shown the anticonvulsant gabapentin to be effective in painful diabetic neuropathy, mixed neuropathies, and postherpetic neuralgia. Lamotrigine, a new anticonvulsant, is effective in trigeminal neuralgia, painful peripheral neuropathy, and post-stroke pain. Other anticonvulsants, both new and old, are currently undergoing controlled clinical testing. The most common adverse effects of anticonvulsants are sedation and cerebellar symptoms (nystagmus, tremor and incoordination). Less common side-effects include haematological changes and cardiac arrhythmia with phenytoin and carbamazepine. The introduction of a mechanism-based classification of neuropathic pain, together with new anticonvulsants with a more specific pharmacological action, may lead to more rational treatment for the individual patient with neuropathic pain.

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