Tricyclic and tetracyclic antidepressants for low back pain

Search Knowledgebase

Topic Contents

Tricyclic and tetracyclic antidepressants for low back pain


Tricyclic antidepressants

Generic NameBrand Name

Tetracyclic antidepressants

Generic Name

How It Works

Low doses of tricyclic or tetracyclic antidepressant medicine increase the level of certain brain chemicals, which may affect how the brain perceives pain. They may also help you sleep.

Why It Is Used

Low doses of antidepressants are often used to treat people who have chronic pain.

Higher doses of antidepressants are used to relieve depression.

When these drugs are not used

  • Some of these medicines are not given to older adults, because the medicines cause too many severe side effects.
  • Cyclic antidepressants usually are not given to people with certain heart problems, such as irregular heartbeats or low blood pressure.

How Well It Works

Research has shown that cyclic antidepressants reduce chronic low back pain for some people.2 They are not recommended for sudden and severe (acute) low back pain. Other antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) do not appear to help people with low back pain.1

Side Effects

Side effects may vary among these medicines, and most of them decrease as the person continues to take the medicine. Cyclic antidepressants tend to have more common and more serious side effects than other, newer types of antidepressant medicines, such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Side effects include:

  • Stomach upset and other digestive problems, such as constipation.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Lowered blood pressure.
  • Weight gain.
  • Tremors and sweating.
  • Inability to urinate (urinary retention).
  • Sexual side effects.
  • Confusion or delirium in older adults.
  • Fatigue and drowsiness.

Advisories. Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have issued advisories on antidepressant medicines and the risk of suicide. It is not recommended that people stop using these medicines. Instead, a person taking antidepressants should be watched for warning signs of suicide. This is especially important at the beginning of treatment or when the doses are changed.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

These medicines need to be started at low doses, and the dose should be increased gradually to reduce the severity of side effects. Your doctor may recommend occasional blood tests to check the amount of the medicine in your blood. Too much of this type of medicine in the bloodstream can be dangerous.

Do not suddenly stop taking these medicines without talking to your doctor. These medicines are often gradually tapered off, under supervision by your doctor.

You may start to feel better within 1 to 3 weeks of taking antidepressant medicine. But it can take as many as 6 to 8 weeks to see more improvement. If you have questions or concerns about your medicines, or if you do not notice any improvement by 3 weeks, talk to your doctor. Desipramine and nortriptyline have the fewest side effects and may be given to older adults for this reason. But antidepressants may not be the preferred choice for older adults, due to severe side effects.

Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and tetracyclic medicines are used by carefully selected people who are closely monitored while they are taking the medicine. These antidepressants are not generally used along with:

  • Certain heart medicines, such as digoxin (Lanoxin).
  • Certain medicines used to treat seizures, such as phenytoin (Dilantin).

Cyclic antidepressants are not recommended for people who have certain heart conditions.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF) (What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.



  1. Staiger TO, et al. (2003). Systematic review of antidepressants in the treatment of chronic low back pain. Spine, 28(22): 2540–2545.
  2. Chou R, Huffman LH (2007). Medications for acute and chronic low back pain: A review of the evidence for an American Pain Society/American College of Physicians clinical practice guideline. Annals of Internal Medicine, 147(7): 505–514.


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William M. Green, MD - Emergency Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Robert B. Keller, MD - Orthopedics
Last Revised June 8, 2010

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.