Living with chronic pain affects every aspect of a person’s life.  Not only does the individual suffer from the pain itself, but it can also lead to stress, irritability, trouble sleeping, social isolation, and lowered self-esteem due to an inability to function at higher levels at work. There are a number of available options for treating chronic pain, from over-the-counter medications to surgery to acupuncture. But one treatment in particular may surprise you: antidepressants. Today, it’s not uncommon for doctors to prescribe antidepressants for patients who suffer from chronic pain, even when they show no signs of depression.   


What is chronic pain? 


Chronic pain is defined as pain that persists past normal healing time and lasts or recurs for more than 3 months. An estimated 20% of people worldwide experience chronic pain, and it accounts for 15% to 20% of doctor’s visits. The causes of chronic pain vary. In some cases, it may be the result of nerve damage caused by injury or illness. In other cases, it’s caused by an underlying health condition, such as fibromyalgia or endometriosis. The types of pain vary as well. People with chronic pain may experience migraine, lower back pain, post-surgical pain, arthritis pain, or other types of pain. The severity and frequency also varies from person to person. 


Because there are so many different factors involved with each individual’s condition, there is no one-size fits all treatment for chronic pain. Treatment options vary widely, and some people have to explore a range of different treatments before they find one that works. Treatments for chronic pain include:

  • Over-the-counter medications: acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin
  • Prescription opioid medications: morphine, hydrocodone
  • Electrical stimulation 
  • Surgery
  • Acupuncture
  • Physical therapy
  • Massage
  • And many more

And today, many people find relief from chronic pain through antidepressant medications. 


How do antidepressants work to treat chronic pain? 

Antidepressants are typically prescribed to treat the symptoms of depression, but some people who do not suffer from depression have still found relief from their pain with the use of antidepressants.  No one knows exactly how antidepressants work to treat chronic pain, but the more popular theories suggest that they affect the chemicals in the body that send pain signals to the brain. Some common types of antidepressants that aid in the treatment of chronic pain include: 

  • Tricyclic antidepressants
    • Elavil
    • Sinequan
    • Vivactil
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
    • Prozac
    • Lexapro
    • Zoloft
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) 
    • Cymbalta
    • Pristiq
    • Savella
  • Norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs)
    • Wellbutrin
    • Zyban


Antidepressants do not work right away for depression or pain. Most take one to four weeks to begin to relieve symptoms. And not every medication will work for every individual. Some people need to try a few different medications before they find one that alleviate their pain.


Additional information about the use of antidepressants for chronic pain

Studies have shown that depression and pain often go hand in hand. People with chronic pain are at a higher risk of developing symptoms of depression, and depression can also manifest as pain. Living with pain can have a negative effect on a person’s mood, sleep, and general sense of satisfaction with life. When antidepressants are used to treat pain, they can also have the added benefit of stabilizing the mood and aiding in sleep. And because antidepressants can be used as a non-opioid alternative for the treatment of chronic pain, they have the added benefit of eliminating the risk of opioid addiction. 


Non-opioid pain treatment in San Diego

At Pacific Health Systems in San Diego, we understand how difficult it is to live with chronic pain.  If you or someone you love is suffering from chronic pain and is unable to find relief with standard pain treatments, we may be able to help you find an antidepressant that alleviates your symptoms without risking opioid addiction. Our providers specialize in non-opioid pain treatment in San Diego, primary care, psychiatry, psychology services, and advanced depression treatments. Through a continuum of behavioral health and primary care services, we’re committed to helping our patients optimize their mental health and live their best lives.