BACKGROUND: Although pain is common in osteoarthritis, most people fail to achieve adequate analgesia. Increasing acknowledgement of the contribution of pain sensitisation has resulted in the investigation of medications affecting pain processing with central effects. Antidepressants contribute to pain management in other conditions where pain sensitisation is present.
OBJECTIVES: To assess the benefits and harms of antidepressants for the treatment of symptomatic knee and hip osteoarthritis in adults.
SEARCH METHODS: We used standard, extensive Cochrane search methods. The latest search was January 2021.
SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomised controlled trials of adults with osteoarthritis that compared use of antidepressants to placebo or alternative comparator. We included trials that focused on efficacy (pain and function), treatment-related adverse effects and had documentation regarding discontinuation of participants. We excluded trials of less than six weeks of duration or had participants with concurrent mental health disorders.
DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We used standard Cochrane methods. Major outcomes were pain; responder rate; physical function; quality of life; and proportion of participants who withdrew due to adverse events, experienced any adverse events or had serious adverse events. Minor outcomes were proportion meeting the OARSI (Osteoarthritis Research Society International) Response Criteria, radiographic joint structure changes and proportion of participants who dropped out of the study for any reason. We used GRADE to assess certainty of evidence.
MAIN RESULTS: Nine trials (2122 participants) met the inclusion criteria. Seven trials examined only knee osteoarthritis. Two also included participants with hip osteoarthritis. All trials compared antidepressants to placebo, with or without non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Trial sizes were 36 to 388 participants. Most participants were female, with mean ages of 54.5 to 65.9 years. Trial durations were 8 to 16 weeks. Six trials examined duloxetine. We combined data from nine trials in meta-analyses for knee and hip osteoarthritis. One trial was at low risk of bias in all domains. Five trials were at risk of attrition and reporting bias. High-certainty evidence found that antidepressants resulted in a clinically unimportant improvement in pain compared to placebo. Mean reduction in pain (0 to 10 scale, 0 = no pain) was 1.7 points with placebo and 2.3 points with antidepressants (mean difference (MD) -0.59, 95% confidence interval (CI) -0.88 to -0.31; 9 trials, 2122 participants). Clinical response was defined as achieving a 50% or greater reduction in 24-hour mean pain. High-certainty evidence demonstrated that 45% of participants receiving antidepressants had a clinical response compared to 28.6% receiving placebo (RR 1.55, 95% CI 1.32 to 1.82; 6 RCTs, 1904 participants). This corresponded to an absolute improvement in pain of 16% more responders with antidepressants (8.9% more to 26% more) and a number needed to treat for an additional beneficial effect (NNTB) of 6 (95% CI 4 to 11). High-certainty evidence showed that the mean improvement in function (on 0 to 100 Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Arthritis Index, 0 = best function) was 10.51 points with placebo and 16.16 points with antidepressants (MD -5.65 points, 95% CI -7.08 to -4.23; 6 RCTs, 1909 participants). This demonstrates a small, clinically unimportant response. Moderate-certainty evidence (downgraded for imprecision) showed that quality of life measured using the EuroQol 5-Dimension scale (-0.11 to 1.0, 1.0 = perfect health) improved by 0.07 points with placebo and 0.11 points with antidepressants (MD 0.04, 95% CI 0.01 to 0.07; 3 RCTs, 815 participants). This is clinically unimportant. High-certainty evidence showed that total adverse events increased in the antidepressant group (64%) compared to the placebo group (49%) (RR 1.27, 95% CI 1.15 to 1.41; 9 RCTs, 2102 participants). The number needed to treat for an additional harmful outcome (NNTH) was 7 (95% CI 5 to 11). Low-certainty evidence (downgraded twice for imprecision for very low numbers of events) found no evidence of a difference in serious adverse events between groups (RR 0.94, 95% CI 0.46 to 1.94; 9 RCTs, 2101 participants). The NNTH was 1000. Moderate-certainty evidence (downgraded for imprecision) showed that 11% of participants receiving antidepressants withdrew from trials due to an adverse event compared to 5% receiving placebo (RR 2.15, 95% CI 1.56 to 2.97; 6 RCTs, 1977 participants). The NNTH was 17 (95% CI 10 to 35).
AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: There is high-certainty evidence that use of antidepressants for knee osteoarthritis leads to a non-clinically important improvement in mean pain and function. However, a small number of people will have a 50% or greater important improvement in pain and function. This finding was consistent across all trials. Pain in osteoarthritis may be due to a variety of causes that differ between individuals. It may be that the cause of pain that responds to this therapy is only present in a small number of people. There is moderate-certainty evidence that antidepressants have a small positive effect on quality of life with heterogeneity between trials. High-certainty evidence indicates antidepressants result in more adverse events and moderate-certainty evidence indicates more withdrawal due to adverse events. There was little to no difference in serious adverse events (low-certainty evidence due to low numbers of events). This suggests that if antidepressants were being considered, there needs to be careful patient selection to optimise clinical benefit given the known propensity for adverse events with antidepressant use. Future trials should include alternative antidepressant agents or phenotyping of pain in people with osteoarthritis, or both.
Antidepressants are also too dangerous to use in this setting!