This review is an update of a review of tramadol for neuropathic pain, published in 2006; updating was to bring the review in line with current standards. Neuropathic pain, which is caused by a lesion or disease affecting the somatosensory system, may be central or peripheral in origin. Peripheral neuropathic pain often includes symptoms such as burning or shooting sensations, abnormal sensitivity to normally painless stimuli, or an increased sensitivity to normally painful stimuli. Neuropathic pain is a common symptom in many diseases of the peripheral nervous system.
To assess the analgesic efficacy of tramadol compared with placebo or other active interventions for chronic neuropathic pain in adults, and the adverse events associated with its use in clinical trials.
We searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, and Embase for randomised controlled trials from inception to January 2017. We also searched the reference lists of retrieved studies and reviews, and online clinical trial registries.
We included randomised, double-blind trials of two weeks' duration or longer, comparing tramadol (any route of administration) with placebo or another active treatment for neuropathic pain, with subjective pain assessment by the participant.
Two review authors independently extracted data and assessed trial quality and potential bias. Primary outcomes were participants with substantial pain relief (at least 50% pain relief over baseline or very much improved on Patient Global Impression of Change scale (PGIC)), or moderate pain relief (at least 30% pain relief over baseline or much or very much improved on PGIC). Where pooled analysis was possible, we used dichotomous data to calculate risk ratio (RR) and number needed to treat for an additional beneficial outcome (NNT) or harmful outcome (NNH), using standard methods. We assessed the quality of the evidence using GRADE and created 'Summary of findings' tables.
We identified six randomised, double-blind studies involving 438 participants with suitably characterised neuropathic pain. In each, tramadol was started at a dose of about 100 mg daily and increased over one to two weeks to a maximum of 400 mg daily or the maximum tolerated dose, and then maintained for the remainder of the study. Participants had experienced moderate or severe neuropathic pain for at least three months due to cancer, cancer treatment, postherpetic neuralgia, peripheral diabetic neuropathy, spinal cord injury, or polyneuropathy. The mean age was 50 to 67 years with approximately equal numbers of men and women. Exclusions were typically people with other significant comorbidity or pain from other causes. Study duration for treatments was four to six weeks, and two studies had a cross-over design.Not all studies reported all the outcomes of interest, and there were limited data for pain outcomes. At least 50% pain intensity reduction was reported in three studies (265 participants, 110 events). Using a random-effects analysis, 70/132 (53%) had at least 50% pain relief with tramadol, and 40/133 (30%) with placebo; the risk ratio (RR) was 2.2 (95% confidence interval (CI) 1.02 to 4.6). The NNT calculated from these data was 4.4 (95% CI 2.9 to 8.8). We downgraded the evidence for this outcome by two levels to low quality because of the small size of studies and of the pooled data set, because there were only 110 actual events, the analysis included different types of neuropathic pain, the studies all had at least one high risk of potential bias, and because of the limited duration of the studies.Participants experienced more adverse events with tramadol than placebo. Report of any adverse event was higher with tramadol (58%) than placebo (34%) (4 studies, 266 participants, 123 events; RR 1.6 (95% CI 1.2 to 2.1); NNH 4.2 (95% CI 2.8 to 8.3)). Adverse event withdrawal was higher with tramadol (16%) than placebo (3%) (6 studies, 485 participants, 45 events; RR 4.1 (95% CI 2.0 to 8.4); NNH 8.2 (95% CI 5.8 to 14)). Only four serious adverse events were reported, without obvious attribution to treatment, and no deaths were reported. We downgraded the evidence for this outcome by two or three levels to low or very low quality because of small study size, because there were few actual events, and because of the limited duration of the studies.
There is only modest information about the use of tramadol in neuropathic pain, coming from small, largely inadequate studies with potential risk of bias. That bias would normally increase the apparent benefits of tramadol. The evidence of benefit from tramadol was of low or very low quality, meaning that it does not provide a reliable indication of the likely effect, and the likelihood is very high that the effect will be substantially different from the estimate in this systematic review.