Antiepileptic drugs for chronic non-cancer pain in children and adolescents

Bottom line

We are uncertain as to whether antiepileptic drugs provide pain relief for chronic non-cancer pain in children and adolescents. We do not have evidence to suggest that one type of antiepileptic drug is more effective than another.


Children can experience chronic or recurrent pain related to genetic conditions, nerve damage, muscle or joint pain, stomach pain, or for other unknown reasons. Chronic pain is pain that lasts three months or more and is commonly accompanied by changes in lifestyle and functional abilities, as well as by signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Antiepileptic (anticonvulsant) drugs were originally developed to treat epilepsy, but some of these drugs have been shown to provide pain relief in some chronic painful conditions in adults.

Study characteristics

In September 2016 we searched for clinical trials in which antiepileptic drugs were used to treat chronic pain. We found two studies with a total of 141 participants (aged 7 to 18 years) with chronic neuropathic pain, complex regional pain syndrome type 1, or fibromyalgia, which they had for more than 3 months.

Key results

One study looked at pregabalin versus placebo for people with fibromyalgia, and found no significant change in pain scores. The other study evaluated gabapentin compared to amitriptyline, but did not report our specified pain outcomes.

Side effects were uncommon, and only mild reactions (such as nausea, dizziness, drowsiness, tiredness, and abdominal discomfort): pregabalin 38 participants, gabapentin 2 participants, amitriptyline 1 participant, and placebo 34 participants. Only 11 participants withdrew due to these mild side effects (4 pregabalin, 2 gabapentin, 1 amitriptyline, 4 placebo).

Quality of the evidence

We rated the quality of the evidence from studies using four levels: very low, low, moderate, or high. Very low-quality evidence means that we are very uncertain about the results. High-quality evidence means that we are very confident in the results.

The available evidence in this review was of very low-quality due to a lack of data and small study sizes.

Authors' conclusions: 

This review identified only two small studies, with insufficient data for analysis.

As we could undertake no meta-analysis, we were unable to comment about efficacy or harm from the use of antiepileptic drugs to treat chronic non-cancer pain in children and adolescents. Similarly, we could not comment on our remaining secondary outcomes: Carer Global Impression of Change; requirement for rescue analgesia; sleep duration and quality; acceptability of treatment; physical functioning; and quality of life.

We know from adult randomised controlled trials that some antiepileptics, such as gabapentin and pregabalin, can be effective in certain chronic pain conditions.

Read the full abstract...

Pain is a common feature of childhood and adolescence around the world, and for many young people, that pain is chronic. The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for pharmacological treatments for children's persisting pain acknowledge that pain in children is a major public health concern of high significance in most parts of the world. While in the past, pain was largely dismissed and was frequently left untreated, views on children's pain have changed over time, and relief of pain is now seen as important.

We designed a suite of seven reviews on chronic non-cancer pain and cancer pain (looking at antidepressants, antiepileptic drugs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, opioids, and paracetamol) in order to review the evidence for children's pain utilising pharmacological interventions in children and adolescents.

As the leading cause of morbidity in the world today, chronic disease (and its associated pain) is a major health concern. Chronic pain (that is pain lasting three months or longer) can occur in the paediatric population in a variety of pathophysiological classifications (nociceptive, neuropathic, or idiopathic) relating to genetic conditions, nerve damage pain, chronic musculoskeletal pain, and chronic abdominal pain, and for other unknown reasons.

Antiepileptic (anticonvulsant) drugs, which were originally developed to treat convulsions in people with epilepsy, have in recent years been used to provide pain relief in adults for many chronic painful conditions and are now recommended for the treatment of chronic pain in the WHO list of essential medicines. Known side effects of antiepileptic drugs range from sweating, headache, elevated temperature, nausea, and abdominal pain to more serious effects including mental or motor function impairment.


To assess the analgesic efficacy and adverse events of antiepileptic drugs used to treat chronic non-cancer pain in children and adolescents aged between birth and 17 years, in any setting.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) via the Cochrane Register of Studies Online, MEDLINE via Ovid, and Embase via Ovid from inception to 6 September 2016. We also searched the reference lists of retrieved studies and reviews as well as online clinical trial registries.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials, with or without blinding, by any route, treating chronic non-cancer pain in children and adolescents, comparing any antiepileptic drug with placebo or an active comparator.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently assessed studies for eligibility. We planned to use dichotomous data to calculate risk ratio and number needed to treat for one additional event, using standard methods if data were available. We assessed the evidence using GRADE and created two 'Summary of findings' tables.

Main results: 

We included two studies with a total of 141 participants (aged 7 to 18 years) with chronic neuropathic pain, complex regional pain syndrome type 1 (CRPS-I), or fibromyalgia. One study investigated pregabalin versus placebo in participants with fibromyalgia (107 participants), and the other study investigated gabapentin versus amitriptyline in participants with CRPS-I or neuropathic pain (34 participants). We were unable to perform any quantitative analysis.

Risk of bias for the two included studies varied, due to issues with randomisation (low to unclear risk), blinding of outcome assessors (low to unclear risk), reporting bias (low to unclear risk), the size of the study populations (high risk), and industry funding in the 'other' domain (low to unclear risk). We judged the remaining domains of sequence generation, blinding of participants and personnel, and attrition as low risk of bias.

Primary outcomes

One study (gabapentin 900 mg/day versus amitriptyline 10 mg/day, 34 participants, for 6 weeks) did not report our primary outcomes.

The second study (pregabalin 75 to 450 mg/day versus placebo 75 to 450 mg/day, 107 participants, for 15 weeks) reported no significant change in pain scores for pain relief of 30% or greater between pregabalin 18/54 (33.3%), and placebo 16/51 (31.4%), P = 0.83 (very low-quality evidence). This study also reported Patient Global Impression of Change, with the percentage of participants feeling "much or very much improved" with pregabalin 53.1%, and placebo 29.5% (very low-quality evidence).

Secondary outcomes

In one small study, adverse events were uncommon: gabapentin 2 participants (2 adverse events); amitriptyline 1 participant (1 adverse event) (6-week trial). The second study reported a higher number of adverse events: pregabalin 38 participants (167 adverse events); placebo 34 participants (132 adverse events) (15-week trial) (very low-quality evidence).

Withdrawals due to adverse events were infrequent in both studies: pregabalin (4 participants), placebo (4 participants), gabapentin (2 participants), and amitriptyline (1 participant) (very low-quality evidence).

Serious adverse events were reported in both studies. One study reported only one serious adverse event (cholelithiasis and major depression resulting in hospitalisation in the pregabalin group) and the other study reported no serious adverse events (very low-quality evidence).

There were few or no data for our remaining secondary outcomes.

Quality of evidence

For the outcomes with available data, we downgraded the quality of the evidence by three levels to very low-quality due to too few data and the fact that the number of events was too small to be meaningful.