Opioid drugs, including fentanyl, are commonly used to treat neuropathic pain, and are considered effective by some professionals. Most reviews have examined all opioids together. This review sought evidence specifically for fentanyl, at any dose, and by any route of administration. Other opioids are considered in separate reviews.
To assess the analgesic efficacy of fentanyl for chronic neuropathic pain in adults, and the adverse events associated with its use in clinical trials.
We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, and Embase from inception to June 2016, together with the reference lists of retrieved articles, and two online study registries.
We included randomised, double-blind studies of two weeks' duration or longer, comparing fentanyl (in any dose, administered by any route, and in any formulation) with placebo or another active treatment in chronic neuropathic pain.
Two review authors independently searched for studies, extracted efficacy and adverse event data, and examined issues of study quality and potential bias. We did not carry out any pooled analyses. We assessed the quality of the evidence using GRADE.
Only one study met our inclusion criteria. Participants were men and women (mean age 67 years), with postherpetic neuralgia, complex regional pain syndrome, or chronic postoperative pain. They were experiencing inadequate relief from non-opioid analgesics, and had not previously taken opioids for their neuropathic pain. The study used an enriched enrolment randomised withdrawal design. It was adequately blinded, but we judged it at unclear risk of bias for other criteria.Transdermal fentanyl (one-day fentanyl patch) was titrated over 10 to 29 days to establish the maximum tolerated and effective dose (12.5 to 50 µg/h). Participants who achieved a prespecified good level of pain relief with a stable dose of fentanyl, without excessive use of rescue medication or intolerable adverse events ('responders'), were randomised to continue with fentanyl or switch to placebo for 12 weeks, under double-blind conditions. Our prespecified primary outcomes were not appropriate for this study design, but the measures reported do give an indication of the efficacy of fentanyl in this condition.In the titration phase, 1 in 3 participants withdrew because of adverse events or inadequate pain relief, and almost 90% experienced adverse events. Of 258 participants who underwent open-label titration, 163 were 'responders' and entered the randomised withdrawal phase. The number of participants completing the study (and therefore continuing on treatment) without an increase of pain by more than 15/100 was 47/84 (56%) with fentanyl and 28/79 (35%) with placebo. Because only 63% responded sufficiently to enter the randomised withdrawal phase, this implies that only a maximum of 35% of participants entering the study would have had useful pain relief and tolerability with transdermal fentanyl, compared with 22% with placebo. Almost 60% of participants taking fentanyl were 'satisfied' and 'very satisfied' with their treatment at the end of the study, compared with about 40% with placebo. This outcome approximates to our primary outcome of moderate benefit using the Patient Global Impression of Change scale, but the group was enriched for responders and the method of analysis was not clear. The most common adverse events were constipation, nausea, somnolence, and dizziness.There was no information about other types of neuropathic pain, other routes of administration, or comparisons with other treatments.We downgraded the quality of the evidence to very low because there was only one study, with few participants and events, and there was no information about how data from people who withdrew were analysed.
There is insufficient evidence to support or refute the suggestion that fentanyl works in any neuropathic pain condition.