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Rheum Dis Clin North Am. 2002 May;28(2):319-28.

Current experience with 5-HT3 receptor antagonists in fibromyalgia.

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  • 1Friedrich-Baur-Institute, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Ziemssenstr. 1L D-80336, München, Germany.


Pain is perceived, transmitted, processed and modulated within an extensive network of neurotransmitters and hormones. Despite increasing knowledge about the biologic principles, even on the molecular level, the more we learn about the precise mechanisms of their interactions the more questions arise. It is also pertinent to remember that clinical scientists studying pain modulating pharmacologic agents always have to consider possible placebo effects [57-61]. Most of our knowledge regarding the function of neurotransmitter systems in the CNS has been provided by animal studies. Thus we cannot be sure that they have exactly parallel counterparts in humans. For instance, animal studies suggest an inverse relationship between brain and spinal cord concentrations of substance P. If these observations are converted to an interpretation of human fibromyalgia, low brain-tissue levels of both serotonin and substance P should be expected, while spinal cord serotonin concentrations would be low and spinal cord substance P would be high [1]. There is good evidence that 5-HT, its receptors, and their interactions with other neurotransmitters are essential for nociception and antinociception. The activities of 5-HT receptors can be studied by agonist and in humans especially by antagonist use. But even with a direct spinal application of selective agonists and antagonists, observations may still be confounded by (1) dose, as there can be a dose-dependent activation of different receptor subtypes; (2) type of nociceptive tests (e.g., thermal versus pressure versus chemical models), which may have differences in the way they are regulated; and (3) influences due to effects on temperature, blood flow or motor function. With this potential for variability, it is perhaps not surprising that there is some variability in the results of studies reporting on the effects of various 5-HT agonists and antagonists on nociceptive transmission within the spinal cord [62]. For instance, different 5-HT3 receptor densities could exist in various neuronal systems, one density type being completely inhibited at low concentrations, and the others only at higher concentrations of 5-HT3 receptor antagonists, thus resulting in contrary effects. Finally, the "endogeneous 5-HT tone" may greatly influence agonist and antagonist action. Considering this complexity of serotonin-mediated reactions, it is not surprising that treatment of pain by 5-HT3 receptor antagonists appears to yield inconsistent results. As fibromyalgia is now regarded as a pain amplification syndrome with a broad variety of additional nonpain symptoms, the interrelations are complicated even more. Fibromyalgia associated symptoms (e.g., fatigue, insomnia, and irritable bowel syndrome) can be modulated by 5-HT3 receptor antagonists. From the data evaluated so far, there is evidence that 5-HT3 receptor antagonists provide significant benefit in some fibromyalgia patients. In our practice, the data justify a careful application in clinical use according to the study results. The dosage, route of application, long term adverse reactions and duration of therapy still need to be studied in greater detail. Recently reported adverse events from therapy of irritable bowel syndrome with alosetron [63-67] provide a note for caution before hastily using 5-HT3 receptor antagonists without more studies. One can surmise that, much as the biochemistry of depression has been elucidated by the development of the SSRIs, a greater understanding of the role of 5-HT3 receptor antagonists in treating fibromyalgia patients may provide some insights into disease mechanisms of this enigmatic disorder.

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